The bigger the crisis, the smaller it looks. If the Tories’ problems had external causes, some of them might now rise to the challenge. Or even just one, and that person could be the leader. But none can borrow stature from the magnitude of this mess when they all had a hand in making it.
Liz Truss was insubstantial as a leadership candidate and got flimsier in office. The most remarkable feature of her tenure in Downing Street was how much destruction she packed into such a small time. She proved how much power a prime minister can wield, and why anyone aspiring to the job should meet some qualifying threshold of competence, responsibility, sound judgment.
The Conservative party scrapped that requirement for Truss, having already waived it for her predecessor. Her refusal to repudiate Boris Johnson – her inability even to articulate the reasons why he had been compelled to stand down – was the unmissable sign that she was unfit to serve as his replacement. But that was also what recommended her to many Tories. The same people now fantasise about reviving the “Boris” show for another run in the theatre of No 10.
The idea is preposterous to anyone who remembers even half of Johnson’s scandals. It is hard to remember all of them because the sheer pace of degradation was so fast. The disgrace didn’t even end when he was turfed out. A parliamentary investigation into his duplicitous denial of lockdown parties at No 10 has yet to deliver a verdict.
There may not be sufficient support for a Johnson restoration among Tory MPs to make his candidacy viable, but it is shameful that there is any. The party should be disqualified from choosing prime ministers for as long as it harbours in its ranks the idolatrous sect that worships character traits exactly opposite to the ones required for sound government.
Coalescing quickly around a Rishi Sunak coronation would probably be the closest thing the Tories could get to a show of contrition. And it wouldn’t be that close. Sunak was happy to serve as Johnson’s chancellor when dissent would have looked purely principled. He moved against his boss only when confident that doing so would create a vacancy at the top.
But at least he turned assassin in the end. The fact that so many Tories despised the former chancellor for his part in the Boricide, and gave their allegiance to Truss out of spite, counts as a kind of credential in the latest contest. Or it should do if MPs are interested in letting reality into the sealed chamber where they decide the nation’s fate.
There would be a desultory logic to Sunak’s accession, which probably beats any of the alternative candidacies. He came second in the recent contest where the winner self-destructed for reasons that he quite accurately foresaw. On the financial farrago that brought Truss down, Sunak has a reasonable claim to prescience.
In ideological and practical terms he should, on paper, be acceptable to the widest range of Tory MPs. His economics are drily Thatcherite and, unlike Truss, he voted for Brexit in 2016. Sunak has top-level experience of government in a crisis. He ran the Treasury through the pandemic, and by the accounts of non-partisan civil servants, did it with professional discipline that was absent from No 10 at the time. Both Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch, two of the summer’s runners-up who may also reprise their candidacies, are untested by a high office of state. Suella Braverman was tested by the Home Office. She failed.
Sunak’s record might not appeal to a wider electorate but that is a concern for the week after next. What matters now is that he is well positioned at the intersection of various sets on a Venn diagram of Tory requirements from a leader.
And that is where MPs would look, if they were minded to be rational about the choice. But if rationality were abundant, there would be no indulgence of a Johnson comeback (nor talk of a Braverman candidacy).
The Tories have gone to a place beyond ideological dispute and secular schism. They have crossed into the realm of religious warfare where, for many MPs, purity of faith is valued over receptiveness to evidence. For that cohort, the test of a leader is not whether they are best suited to govern in response to circumstance, but whether they have the courage to continue down the path of defying reality. When facts are the enemy, the champion is whoever can build the most glorious edifice of falsehood for the party to rally around.
There are many Tory MPs who see that movement in their ranks and despair, but it is not clear they are numerous or organised enough to prevent it winning the day. Again.
The insurmountable problem for any half-decent contender for the leadership, post-Truss, post-Johnson, is that description of the party’s problems amounts to repudiation of everything it has stood for over recent years. The most credible leadership campaign in the eyes of the country would be the one that expressed humility over the misjudgments that led to the detonation of Britain’s reputation as a serious country.
The deserving winner of the race would be the person who can sift through the rubble in the crater where Truss’s economic plans blew up and apologise for amassing so much combustible delusion over so many years. The Conservative recovery begins with a humble audit of terrible choices that have made every household in the land poorer.
But there is no such candidate because the race is structured to avoid the agonies of honesty that await the Conservative party if it is ever to be serious about regaining trust. The debate that needs to be had – about taxes, about the role of the state, about sensible appraisal of Britain’s place in the world, about the way that Brexit wove error on all of those things into a tapestry of utopian delusion – will consume the Tories for years.
It takes an extraordinary arrogance with power, a deranged sense of entitlement to rule, for Conservatives to expect the country to wait while they thrash out those differences in government. The proper place for the coming spectacle of recrimination, mutual loathing and flight from accountability is opposition. The noise they make sounds like action being taken, but it is the roar and gurgle of shallow water in the very last cycle before it finally reaches the drain.
Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist
This content was originally published here.