Jhere is a conundrum at the heart of the Conservative Party leadership election, and I am not talking about who will win. The most intriguing riddle is this. We know that members of the Conservative Party are overwhelmingly pro-Brexit: 79% of them voted leave, according to YouGov. We also know how important “Europe” is to conservative stalwarts, especially when choosing a leader: that’s why they were willing to ignore all considerations of experience, qualifications and eligibility. when they cast an obvious dud like Iain Duncan Smith over Ken Clarke in 2001. .
Now consider the choice facing the conservative selectorate. Liz Truss campaigned fiercely to stay in 2016, warning, presciently, “how difficult it would become to do business” if we were outside the European Union, having to “fill in 50 boxes on a form every time we wanted to export something.’ Rishi Sunak, meanwhile, was a staunch supporter of Brexit, not just during the referendum campaign, but for decades before that: he wrote whining about Brussels at the age of 16. Given all of this, the incumbent Sunak should be miles ahead of the rest of the Truss.And yet, YouGov has Truss beating Sunak among the Conservative members by 24 points.How is that possible?
The answer is that Brexit does not always mean Brexit. Or rather, the meaning of Brexit is not limited to its literal definition. There is both more and less than just advocating for Britain to leave the EU. It is, in a formulation first used, it seems, by novelist Nick Harkaway, more a mood than a policy. Regardless of his stance on politics, Truss embodies the Brexit vibe. And Sunak no.
It’s partly cultural. Sunak could be a mascot for the international, high-tech, high-finance elite. The billionaire in-laws, the resume, the look. As one Westminster veteran put it: “It is Phone a Goldman Sachs guy,” even down to his own personal way. He can be affable when the cameras are on, but up close he’s “master of the universe”.
Truss’ personality is different. The Yorkshire trace in the accent, the Thatcher cosplay, coupled with her disavowal of her earlier stance – she says she was ‘wrong’ to stay back – means she now has a Brexity vibe. Especially in the face of Sunak, who, along with his non-dom wife and US green card, could have been one of the “citizens of nowhere” Theresa May had in mind when she uttered that venomous phrase.
Of course, none of this is fair. A former cabinet colleague calls it “incredible impertinence” that Truss, who was a cheerleader for George Osborne’s austerity program, which the ex-minister says led millions to vote for Brexit, now presents itself as the tribune of the left behind: “The only candidate who would allow him to get away with it is an international banker.
But there is more to the Brexit mood than class and culture motives. Because the mood is only partly one of hostility towards Europe. It is mainly about hostility to the facts. Truss is the real Brexiter in this contest because she subscribes to magical thinking, believing that just saying something is enough to make it happen. Just close your eyes and wish really, really hard.
Thus, she may claim to have ‘delivered’ a solution to the impasse over the Northern Ireland Protocol, when in fact she merely introduced a Commons Bill which, if passed, would break an international agreement and trigger a possible trade war with the EU. No less vain is her boast of having negotiated dozens of trade agreements, when in fact most of them she simply cut and pasted over existing European agreements and “pasted a union jack on it,” as one backbencher put it. this.
But it’s the fantastic economy that proves that Truss has drunk the spirit of Brexit well. For the Leave campaign was built on the illusion that Britain could erect barriers to trade with its nearest neighbors and yet grow richer as a result. He relied on the likes of maverick economist Patrick Minford, who said a hard Brexit would mean an additional £135billion in annual revenue for the UK economy. In fact, and quite predictably, the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that Brexit has caused an annual loss of around £80bn.
True to its new Brexit colours, Truss comes up with a new set of numbers that don’t add up and could never add up. She wants to simultaneously reduce the money going into public coffers and increase the money going out: less taxes and more spending at the same time. It will reverse the National Insurance hike and increase the defense budget. It is pure cakeiness, the philosophy forever associated with Boris Johnson, but which has defined the whole Brexit project with its promise of all the benefits of EU membership – ‘frictionless trade’ and the rest – and none of the costs. Truss says the tax cuts will pay for themselves, by stimulating growth, and will not drive up inflation. Asked to cite an authority for such an unlikely allegation, she names… Patrick Minford.
It continues, a dream world unrelated to fact or even observable reality. Today alone there were six-hour queues at Dover, caused in part by post-Brexit border controls; EU legal action over UK failure to comply with Northern Ireland Protocol; and a government announcement that the Brexit divorce bill could be as high as £42.5billion. But none of this should interfere with the fantasy that it was Truss’ vote to stay that was the mistake.
This is now the divide within the Conservative party: not letting v stay, but rather the one memorably described by George W Bush’s anonymous aide who pitted “the reality-based community” against those who inhabited the estate. faith. Once you’ve moved from the first to the second, life is so much freer. In politics, in particular, so many opportunities open up. You can say whatever your audience wants to hear. That’s why some of Truss’ internal critics fear she’s not just “Boris continuity, but Trump continuity.”
That’s what Rishi Sunak faces now, as he urges his party to ignore “fairy tales” and return to conservative fundamentals, with a return to sound money. But it’s too late. He may be the defender of Thatcherite policy – no tax cuts until inflation is brought under control – but Truss is the apostle of Thatcherite mood: everyone bows and talks about overthrowing the status quo, even when that status quo has been forged by a decade of Conservative government. Except that now there is the twist of Brexit: the leak of the facts.
Still, I wouldn’t feel too sorry for Sunak, as he faces a monster of his own making. Conservative members may have forgotten him, but he supported leave. He helped free this beast and rode it to No. 11. He sat next to Johnson, as the air grew foul with lies. If he’s having trouble breathing now, he knows who to blame.