“She will be here very shortly,” Kwasi Kwarteng said, standing awkwardly and waiting for Liz Truss on stage at her launch. He’d just told us how ready she was, so it wasn’t an ideal moment to be running late.
In the meantime, we could enjoy her backdrop. “Trusted to DELIVER”, it said, with the air of one of those companies that promises to drop off your new telly in a four-hour window from 2pm, then doesn’t ring the doorbell and just chucks the package over the side gate.
Platitudes rolled over us.
Finally, she turned up. “Friends,” she began. This was presumably addressed to the MPs in front rather than the press at the back of the room, but even then it seemed like a stretch. Truss is a flag of convenience for many of them, the person selected to avenge the great wrong done to Boris Johnson. Truss is the candidate of people who think Johnson was forced to hold parties and lie about them by a Remainer plot, and who now believe that a former Liberal Democrat who campaigned to stay in the EU is their best hope for a hard-right, hard-Brexit government. There is a word for people like this, and it’s not “genius”.
“I didn’t come from a traditional Conservative background,” Truss said, meaninglessly. What is a traditional Conservative background? Grocer’s daughter? Some of the claims about lives of struggle and adversity overcome in this leadership campaign are not going to stand up to much scrutiny. Vote Liz, her dad was a professor, but only at a redbrick university.
Truss had held off launching her campaign until Thursday, after the first round of voting. The idea was presumably that she would be standing before us as the second-placed “Stop Rishi” candidate. Instead, following Penny Mordaunt’s surprise surge, she arrived as a third-placed underperformer.
Her speech seemed to have been complied from off-cuts of her rival’s addresses. Platitudes rolled over us. “Families are a vital part of our lives … cutting pointless regulation … low tax … bold decisions …” Her delivery was flat, at times stumbling over the words. Was she wondering about the point of it all?
Would Truss be an easier opponent for Sunak than Mordaunt?
There was no reference to the reason they are having a leadership contest. Boris who? Pushed on that, Truss replied: “I’m a loyal person. I’m loyal to Boris Johnson.” Didn’t the party want change? “The change we need to deliver is change on the economy.” The idea that MPs ejected Johnson out of fury at Treasury policy is a novel take on the events of last week, but then Truss was abroad at the time. Perhaps this is what Jacob Rees-Mogg has told her. Really, the only thing Truss seemed to think the prime minister had got wrong was giving a job to Rishi Sunak.
How did she feel about losing to Sunak and Mordaunt? “I’ve been focused on making sure Vladimir Putin is defeated.” The I’m-not-really-trying defence of underperformance.
Did she think Mordaunt was up to the job? “I certainly won’t be making any disparaging comments,” she replied, which was, in its way, a pretty clear answer. How did she feel about the fact that her most prominent backers, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries, are touring TV studios slagging off the other candidates? “I’m putting forward a positive agenda,” she replied. It wasn’t a very convincing denial.
With that, she departed, or tried to, getting lost on her way out of the room. Should she veer left or carry straight on? An aide rushed over to show her the door. He pulled her to the right, always the safest strategy in a Tory leadership contest.
A couple of hours later, the results of the second ballot came in, and all three front-runners had somehow managed to underperform. The momentum probably remains with Mordaunt. Perhaps a Rees-Mogg endorsement isn’t worth what it used to be.
Would Truss be an easier opponent for Sunak than Mordaunt? Might they both overtake him? None of the three is a great candidate. It’s easy to imagine any or all of them blowing up over the summer. The qualification for serving in Johnson’s government was a willingness to sign up to some pretty daft ideas and to ignore some pretty obvious failings. We shouldn’t be surprised that none of his ministers turn out to be Abraham Lincoln.
This is a strange race. The Tories have just ejected a prime minister explicitly because they concluded he was morally unfit for office, but having done it, they don’t want to talk about it. Of the three candidates likely to go through to the final round, one was happy to work with him ten days ago, but then resigned, one clearly didn’t like him but never resigned, and one apparently doesn’t think he did anything wrong.
On the opposition benches, Labour’s struggle to decide what it thinks about its last leader has stifled discussion, a sort of Long Corbyn. Will the Conservatives likewise suffer an ongoing inability to reckon with past choices? We’ll have to find a better name than “Long Johnson”.
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