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Saturday, 01 October 2022
Liz versus Rishi
Ian Black

Private Eye, a fortnightly magazine, is well-known in Britain for being iconoclastic and amusing. Last week’s cover was especially good. It pictured Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor of the exchequer, and Liz Truss, the current foreign secretary, walking separately: the headline is “Tory candidates offer a fresh start.” Both are saying: “Only I can sort out the mess left by the government I was in.”

 It’s not that funny, however. These two Conservative politicians are competing to replace Boris Johnson, the prime minister who resigned on July 8 because of a series of damaging scandals, which undermined his already dubious reputation. The peak of these was known as “Partygate”, which involved a succession of social gatherings at No 10 Downing Street and across Whitehall, in breach of the Covid lockdown rules by those who made them.

 Sunak resigned as chancellor – together with around 56 Tory ministers and officials - before Johnson got the message and reluctantly followed suit. But Truss remained loyal to her prime minister and stayed on as foreign secretary. Sunak therefore has an moral advantage, but there is no guarantee Truss won’t beat him as she is more popular with the 160,000 members of the Conservative Party. Although Sunak comfortably won the leadership race among Tory MPs, Truss is the favourite to win after a series of opinion polls and surveys put her firmly ahead with party members.

 Since Johnson became a “caretaker” prime minister and the other candidates failed to stay in the race to succeed him, Sunak and Truss have battled it out on TV several times. The most acrimonious debate so far was on the BBC last Monday when they both ignored calls from fellow Conservatives not to ‘’tarnish the brand” as they wrangled over tax cuts, inflation and relations with China.

 Sunak accused the foreign secretary of seeking “a short-term sugar rush” by cutting national insurance. Truss blamed her former cabinet colleague for raising taxes to their highest level for 70 years. The exchanges at the BBC debate followed a weekend of deeply personal attacks – with Sunak criticised over his wealth and wardrobe, as Truss faced claims she was economically illiterate while being reminded that she was formerly a remainer in the controversial issue of Brexit - the UK leaving the European Union.

 Truss and Sunak constantly interrupted each other on tax, clashed over who had supported “Project Fear”- the Brexit referendum in 2016 - and it was difficult to believe that just three weeks ago they were both ministers in the same cabinet under Johnson.

 It is a very challenging time to be the prime minister of a country suffering from a global economic crisis, rising fuel costs caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the serious risk of famine in Africa. The UK has the highest inflation in the G7, which lavish government spending using borrowed money could well entrench. Average annual GDP growth in the decade leading up to the global financial crisis of 2007-09 was 2.7%; today the average is closer to 1.7%. Britain is stuck in a 15-year low-productivity rut. The country is forecast to have the slowest growth in the G7 in 2023.

 Johnson, who likes being compared to Winston Churchill, has been very supportive of Kyiv and the rollout of Covid vaccines but otherwise he has performed badly in tackling other aspects of the pandemic and other challenging economic issues. He won the December 2019 general election with the biggest majority in 30 years on the slogan of “Get Brexit Done.”.

 On the BBC debate, Sunak, widely seen as having to make up crucial ground to win over the Conservative membership, who will vote from 5 August, repeatedly described his opponent’s plans on the economy as “not conservative”, interrupting her at one point to say: “You promised almost £40bn of unfunded tax cuts, £40bn more borrowing. That is the country’s credit card. It’s our children and grandchildren … everyone here … who are going to have to pick up the tab for that.” Truss hit back over Sunak’s calls for a tougher stance on China, pointing out that the Treasury just last month was calling for closer bilateral and economic ties.

 The two candidates were asked what they thought the three most important things were that people could do for the environment. Sunak said his children were the experts, and cited energy efficiency, recycling and a faith in British innovation to solve problems. Truss said she was “a teenage eco-warrior before it was fashionable”.

 Boris, as he is widely known, will be replaced in No 10 by Liz or Rishi on September 6 – just five weeks away. The coming period is going to be unusually politically intense for the summer holiday, with parliament in recess. Senior Tories are concerned that whichever candidate wins, the competition will damage the party’s standing or the way people see the Conservatives.

 Britain’s next general election will happen by January 2025. So Keir Starmer, the Labour opposition leader, must be hoping that whether Rishi or Liz wins to replace Boris, it will turn out to be pyrrhic victory for the Tories.