The 2022 Conservative Leadership Election – what have we learnt?

For many of us, it sometimes feels like this – as articulated by Andy Burnham on Twitter,

Kemi Badenoch MP, one of the candidates currently for the Leader of the Conservatives and Unionist Party, has said that the division between “remainers” and “Brexiteers” no longer holds. I’ve never liked the term ‘Brexiteer’ as I think of it as a wilful projection that the people who voted Brexit were like Musketeers, courageous and brave. I think they’re brave in that they voted for a drastic geo-political change not knowing what sort of Brexit they would have. The Conservatives never asked us, and then imposed their own brand of Brexit. Nonetheless, in 2019, some people were so terrified of a Jeremy Corbyn government, this did not matter. The policies Labour offered, ranging from nationalising rail or improving utilities, better funding for the NHS, a national social care service, and so, on, were deemed irrelevant – and with Johnson, one could ‘get Brexit done’.

It is now palpably clear that Brexit has not been ‘done’ in any sense. For example, the Northern Ireland protocol, hailed by Liz Truss MP as one of the biggest achievements of her and Boris Johnson, is a mess and now subject to litigation from the European Union. A second time bomb waiting to detonate is the commitment of the equivalent of ‘net zero’ by 2050 as part of the Brexit agreement. Not all of the Tory candidates are behind this, which is somewhat irrelevant considering the 2019 manifesto details. None of the candidates for the Tory leadership have really offered the meat on the bones of the ‘post Brexit’ world. If there is indeed going to be greater regulatory divergence, to satisfy the need of some of the Tory Party to turn Britain into the “Singapore-on-Thames”, one should reasonably expect there to be some trade barriers from the European Union. If indeed “we hold all the cards“, of course, there should be nothing to worry about.

Also not done is the reconfiguration of social care. The Conservatives have literally had at least a decade to consult and legislate on this – and we have nothing. For some reason, Penny Mordaunt MP made some reference to the insurance industry as ‘preliminary work’ in social care reconfiguration – and of course that is a fear of many requiring open, transparent discussion. ‘Will of the people’ cannot only be a slogan, after all. So long as nobody ‘gets social care done’, care packages at discharge destinations such as at home or in residential care settings (care homes, nursing homes) cannot be successfully activated, meaning that patients are languishing in hospital beyond their will and desirability. While Rome burns, Johnson is partying at Chequers as if it is 1999.

This all leads me onto the veneer of the debates – that the membership of the Tory Party are voting for the person with the best policies. There are some red herrings, like Liz Truss MP channeling her inner Margaret Thatcher by wearing a floral blouse which they both presumably would have been proud of. Of course, the candidates want to lay ideological lines in the sand, like Mordaunt wishing to say she is learning from the financial industry primarily in learning about social care (not people like me who are academics and service users of the profession). Or it might have been Suella Braverman MP (and Dominic Raab) who don’t want to be fettered by the European Court of Human Rights, so being ‘unshackled; from the article relating to the right to be free from degrading treatment and torture might allow flights to go to Rwanda. Or Truss to be free from the international legal restraints of the Good Friday Agreement.

But …. if it takes ten minutes to get through to 999 Ambulance, and then takes 19 hours to get from the call to a hospital ward, the system is not working and people can blame the Government. If you have to wake up and ring on the dot of 8 am, and still fail to get an appointment with the GP, a brass necked Tabloid will want you to blame your GP, but you should really blame the Government. If you fail to get a NHS dentist, it must be the fault of the Government, like Kemi Badenoch MP (despite her family’s total income and access to private dentistry) being able to get an appointment for a chipped tooth. Or somebody being unable to get a passport, say for avoiding England in the peak of a heatwave. At the end of the day, the Conservatives are a successful fund raising machine, as evidenced by the successful events run by Johnson and Sunak despite the politics of their ‘falling out’. The Conservatives need to reflect the views of their individual and corporate investors, who will wish to see a return on investment (for example, through Johnson’s alleged personal favours, or official awards in the honours list). This could lead to policy decisions which are not easily directly evidenced as ‘will of the people’ – such as aboltion of the BBC or privatisation of Channel 4. The financial case for Brexit is debatable according to who you talk to, and of course can be ‘rubber stamped’ by a referendum if need be, despite the loss of some trade and some geopolitical soft influence. Opposition voters and members are right to be concerned about a ‘one party state’, where there is progressive privatisation of the NHS, however-so defined (such as increasing proportions of NHS delivery by private and public limited companies).

This is where the ‘quality‘ of the opposition does matter. It is striking that Labour have distanced themselves from the highly popular movement of the RMT in defending workers’ rights. Mick Lynch and Eddie Dempsey have become internet sensations in their own rights. For a long time, RMT has had no financial link to Labour. Likewise, Wes Streeting MP publicly declared this week on LBC that he would distance himself from striking union health workers over pay (despite the freeze in pay compared to the cost of living). This is because Labour wants to be seen to be distant from the Unions. This is problematic for voters also because it looks as if Labour has no influence on the Unions, and the Unions have no influence on Labour. The question then becomes – who does Labour work for? You can see by the U-turn on all of Keir Starmer’s pledges since he became leader of the Opposition, as elicited by Andrew Marr (see here for example on instagram), that this becomes a valid question. So ultimately – what on earth is the point of voting Labour anyway? The Tories then become in the unenviable position where people in England will vote for them even if strategically and operationally void of competence. Boris Johnson MP was not sacked as leader of the Conservative Party for incompetence, although arguably he should have been. He was in effect not even sacked for partygate and the allegation of lying to parliament. He was sacked by his party presumably for making them lie on his behalf in morning media rounds, and effectively for one of his team allegedly looking at pictures of dominatrix while sitting in parliament and one team member allegedly groping young men in the Carlton Club in a way that Ancient Greeks might only have been proud of.

Voting in of the Tory Party, and the invididual positioning of the Tory candidates, may therefore have little indeed to do with the ‘war on woke’. I don’t feel that the culture wars are as in the front of the mind of the Tory PLP as everyone would like to argue. For example, the online safety bill being taken through parliament, albeit now very slowly, arguably drives a ‘coach and horses’ through freedom of expression. It is also possible to triangulate on trans-sexual identity politics – it is possible to respect someone’s identity, whilst also not allowing ‘mixed’ hospital bays or prison cells, or sporting events. It could simply be ‘red meat’ for the ‘red wall’. Some localities have seen evidence of financial levelling up, ungraciously called ‘bungs’ by some. But this is another area where nobody cares about how slick an answer is in a leadership debate, but how good the Conservatives are for delivering adding benefit and value to certain voters.

So it may be plus ça change after all. I suspect the Tory Party will choose the least worst option – and a ‘safe pair of hands’, sort of, in Rishi Sunak MP who seems to have more of a clue on the big problem facing the nation – the risk of hyperinflation and stagflation – than the others. But there is a strong case for someone with the ability of Tom Tugendhat MP being in a senior foreign office rôle too. Kemi Badenoch MP’s right wing politics do not especially appear to suggest that the NHS is ‘safe in her hands’. Liz Truss MP has been accused of not being able to find the door, when ironically the Tories have been trying to show Boris Johnson the door for ages. Perhaps what we take from the leadership events is how nobody has a strategy plan for certain topics, such as ‘saving the NHS’, for example, or clearing up the mess in the administration of criminal law and justice. Penny Mordaunt MP appears to be broadly clueless on most policy briefs, confirming the ‘grave reservations’ view of Lord Frost who is hardly covered in glory himself over the details of the Brexit negotiation outcomes. We know that Rishi Sunak MP is the only man with made to measure suits, where the suits have been made to fit someone else other than Sunak.

The known unknowns are how much Scotland wants to vote SNP despite the record of the SNP in office to give a mandate for a second referendum for ‘independence’, or how successful LibDems will be in securing Tory seats, or how ‘popular’ Starmer is. A major problem for Starmer’s Labour is the animosity from the large section of the membership who feel that Jeremy Corbyn has been unfairly demonised, and how he has no clear policies despite being apparently ready for an election tomorrow. A way to end this endless deadlock in policy and politics would be for someone to bite the bullet, and to catalyse constitutional reform. Britain does face ‘crises’ such as inflation or the cost of living, and voters want immediate solutions. But I think voters also want a clear vision from leaders with competence in transformational leadership, and that’s where somebody with an interest in systems thinking and systems engineering, such as Badenoch, would be very helpful indeed.

Ultimately, it’s the same script, but with a different newsreader. The problem was that the newsreader lost credibility for some, whilst retaining his celebrity status for others. Whether the script is fit for purpose needs to be communicated to all, and this is where bad dancers cannot blame the floor any more.