UK Conservatives fear scars of bitter leadership contest will take time to heal

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LONDON — It’s a long-held maxim in British politics that divided parties do not win elections.

And so it is with some horror that U.K. Conservative Party politicians and supporters have watched the contest to replace Boris Johnson descend into the most rancorous Tory leadership battle in decades.

Already dubbed ‘the dirtiest race in history‘ in its early stages amid a flurry of aggressive leaks and attack dossiers, the contest has now morphed into a bitter head-to-head struggle between U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, punctuated by daily doses of vitriol hurled by each side.

“How are they going to put Humpty Dumpty back together again?,” pondered a concerned former MP, describing the acrimony of the 2022 contest as on “another level” to previous leadership contests.  

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“If Labour had a more enticing leader and a well thought-out strategy, we would be totally on the ropes.”

In the past fortnight alone, senior Truss supporters — among them serving Cabinet ministers — have accused their former colleague Sunak of “socialist” and “Labour-lite” tax policies; of blocking pro-growth reforms, and of wearing “an assassin’s gleaming smile” as he knifed his old boss Boris Johnson in a leadership putsch. Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, a Johnson loyalist, even attacked Sunak’s £450 Prada shoes, and suggested his “diminutive stature” — he is 170cm, or 5ft 6 inches, tall — had helped “fool” Tory MPs into trusting him.

For his part Sunak has described Truss’s economic plans as “fairytales,” and her broader approach to politics as “starry-eyed boosterism.” On Monday Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, a key Sunak supporter, said Truss’s approach would “read unmistakenly to the public like an electoral suicide note.” 

Such acrimony is rarely seen in British leadership contests, where opponents know they must swiftly unite and work together — usually around the same Cabinet table — in the aftermath.

Now, with more than three weeks of the contest still to run, Tory grandees are calling for calm amid fears the rancor could have long-term implications for the party’s electability. 

“Some of the attacks do very little justice to the people making them,” said the Conservative peer and long-serving Cabinet minister Gillian Shephard, one of Truss’s predecessors as MP for South-West Norfolk.

“They need to remember that after all of this, hopefully there will still be a Conservative Party,” she added. “But if they continue, there may very well not be a Conservative government.”

No regrets

Inside the campaign teams, there is little remorse.

“It’s a battle of ideas, and sometimes these things do get heated,” said one Truss ally, pointing to the candidates’ contrasting stances on the economy. (Truss has put tax cuts at the center of her plan for government, which Sunak argues would only fuel inflation.)

Sunak’s allies were equally dismissive of the criticism.

“Politics is a contact sport,” a Sunak ally said. “For goodness’ sake, you’ve got to put people through their paces — they are running to be PM. Our first duty has to be to elect the right person to run the country.”

“You can’t expect, in a head-to-head, one person to say — ‘Oh, well, the other guy would be alright, I’d just be a bit better’,” a Sunak-supporting minister added. “You have to make it sound like they’re less good than they actually are.”

Both campaign teams denied the sweltering summer heatwave is raising temperatures still further, with each operating out of chilled offices in central London. “It’s quite friendly in there,” a Truss supporter working with the campaign said. “There’s a nice air-conditioned office.”

‘They’ve torn strips out of each other’

But other senior Tories are less sure cool heads will prevail, and doubt the party can emerge unscathed from the current acrimony.  

One former political adviser feared neither candidate will be able to reunite MPs after “they’ve torn strips out of each other” for almost two months.

“They’ve written Labour’s leaflets,” the former aide said. “Labour is going to bring this up in parliament and remind people that Dominic Raab said this, or so and so said that.”

The vehement anti-Sunak sentiment in some corners of the party will be particularly hard to overcome if he unexpectedly wins the contest, the former adviser added.

“I think there is a lot of guilt among MPs [about the defenestration of Boris Johnson], and the way they’re dealing with that is they’re projecting it all onto Rishi,” the former aide said, stressing that more than 50 Tory MPs had in fact resigned from government roles alongside Sunak to force Johnson from power.

One Tory MP, who has been quietly supporting Sunak, said they were reluctant to conduct interviews in public as they did not want to be drawn into the increasingly bitter blue-on-blue warfare.

“It’s very, very easy when you’re interviewed, or you do a piece to support a candidate, to end up slagging off Liz,” the MP said. “So I’ve been sort of maintaining radio silence on the matter.”

The MP warned the division in the party would endure if the winner disappears into “some sort of ideological undergrowth,” urging a message of unity once the contest is over.

Election exodus

Much depends, say multiple MPs, on the ministerial appointments made by the new leader next month. 

In 2019 Boris Johnson offered his defeated rival Jeremy Hunt the senior role of defense secretary, although — viewing it as a demotion — Hunt refused to accept. In 2016 Theresa May put her defeated rival Andrea Leadsom in her Cabinet, while in 2005 David Cameron reappointed second-placed David Davis as shadow home secretary, one of the most senior members of his team.

“I think now if it’s just ‘jobs for your mates’, that will make it difficult for the party to heal,” the MP supportive of Sunak said. 

Indeed, the former adviser quoted above predicted there could be an exodus of senior Sunak supporters at the next election if they are not offered ministerial roles.

“All those people who started under David Cameron as junior ministers, they are probably mid-50s-ish, they’ll be thinking ‘this is probably as high as I’ve gone.’ 

“Some of them probably can’t do many other things, and don’t have discernible talents. But some of them who are lawyers, bankers, they’re probably thinking — ‘I’ve got a good 10 years not just to make money, but do other shit too.’”

There has been widespread speculation in Westminster that former Cabinet big-hitter Sajid Javid, who launched his own failed leadership bid last month before belatedly backing Truss, could now leave parliament at the next election — although this has been firmly denied by his own team. “Sajid has absolutely no plans to stand down,” a spokesperson said.

Many Tory MPs also expect the most prominent Sunak supporters to see their career prospects suffer, should Truss win the contest as expected. They include Raab — who was singled out for criticism directly by Truss last week — former Tory chairman Oliver Dowden, and former Chief Whip Mark Harper.

Rishi resurgence?

The big question in MPs’ Whatsapp groups, however, is what happens to the conquered leadership rival.

Both Truss and Sunak have indicated they would serve in each other’s governments, if asked. Plenty of MPs are doubtful this could happen, given the acrimony — and with Truss leading the polls by a large margin, it is Sunak’s future which is currently under the spotlight.

The Sunak-supporting MP quoted above insisted Truss should offer — and he should accept — a job in her top team, in a middle-ranking department like business or local government. 

But whether Sunak simply heads for the exit door remains a live question among colleagues. 

Speculation that he could return to the U.S., where he has a £5.5 million seafront penthouse in Santa Monica, to pursue a career in Silicon Valley has been rife since his wife’s former non-domiciled tax status was revealed, and it emerged he formerly held a green card, allowing permanent residence in the U.S.

His supporters insist no such option is being considered.

“He might find it difficult to get his card back,” the supportive MP shrugged.