Need to know which way any US election will go? Dave Wasserman is your man. The nerdish political analyst devotes hours to sifting through the granular data of minor races before declaring on Twitter: “I’ve seen enough”. The same can probably be said in the race between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak to be the next British prime minister.
Every piece of data suggests we have seen enough. The latest YouGov survey of Conservative party members put her a mere 38 percentage points ahead of Sunak; another by ConservativeHome put her 32 points ahead. Even if such surveys were awry by the same 13 points as the last poll in the 2019 Tory leadership race, she would still walk it.
With Truss seemingly on a glide path to Downing Street, what matters is what a Truss government would look like. On the campaign trail, she has pledged — as Tory leadership contenders tend to — to form a government based purely on merit, not patronage. In a month’s time, her pledge will be put to the test.
Party management will be one of Truss’s toughest challenges. She would be the first Conservative leader in recent history to enter office without the backing of a majority of MPs. The contest has proved how divided the party is, dominated by testy debates and bitter background briefings. One senior cabinet minister reckons, “the party is now ungovernable”.
From the start, the biggest threat to Truss’s premiership will be the European Research Group of ardent Brexiters. They are not the largest caucus of Conservative MPs, but they have shown themselves over and over to be highly effective zealots; campaigners who look at compromise in the same way Truss looks at Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister.
The ERG’s preferred candidate was attorney-general Suella Braverman. Yet the Tory right was split in the MPs’ shortlisting stages and her hopes faded fast. The group shifted en masse to Team Truss, including ERG chair Mark Francois and its formidable former leader Steve Baker. Their backing bought momentum, but also a problem.
Truss has reason to fear the right of her party. The ERG has been instrumental in the defenestration of the last three Tory leaders. For David Cameron, they were the driving force behind holding the referendum on the EU that led to his exit from office. For Theresa May, they rejected the Brexit deal that forced her out. And for Boris Johnson, they were the first MPs to turn against him on Covid restrictions and tax rises.
Prime minister Truss would have two options. One is to go all in and appoint an ERG cabinet: bring back former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith as chief whip, promote Braverman to home secretary or install her as culture secretary to fight a “war on woke”. Keeping them close provides protection, but it also gives her no political headroom and severely limits the talent pool of her nascent government.
The alternative is to stamp her authority with a cabinet that represents the full spectrum of Tory opinion. Truss’s range of backers means she could do this with loyalists alone. By handing cabinet roles to defence secretary Ben Wallace, former Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis and foreign affairs select committee chair Tom Tugendhat, as well as some on the right, she would be bound by no one group. Close allies of Truss insist this is the plan.
Talent will matter. Much of the Tory leadership debate has taken place in a bubble hermetically sealed from reality that will burst on September 6, when the new prime minister is installed. Their first 100 days will be dominated by soaring energy prices and potential civil unrest if people stop paying bills. There is the Northern Ireland protocol: he or she will have to decide soon whether to tear it up and face a trade war with the EU. And Scottish independence simmers away.
On these issues and more, Truss will need all the ideological dexterity she has shown throughout her political career. On her journey from an antimonarchist Liberal Democrat, to centrist pro-Remain liberal Tory, to pro-Brexit tub-thumper, she has found an advantage in adopting stances to suit the moment. This autumn is going to be such a time.
Truss is succeeding in this race by essentially rolling over Tory party members and tickling their bellies, telling them what they want to hear. She declared at a hustings in Exeter this week that she will be paying little attention to columns in this very newspaper if she enters Downing Street. But she is not there yet and she should beware the trap of narrow ideology. She must avoid the error of her predecessor in failing to form the cabinet the country needs.