In a post-Boris Johnson world, which Tory leader would Labour most fear?

If you really want the country to be persuaded the government can offer a fresh start, a more radical departure is needed, with a leader less linked to sleaze, lies and failures

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 11 January 2022 14:45
<p>Labour will find life tougher, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone that Starmer’s front bench would run scared from</p>

Labour will find life tougher, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone that Starmer’s front bench would run scared from

Imagine you’re a Conservative MP in a marginal constituency, maybe a Red Wall seat where Labour voters only “lent” their vote to “get Brexit done” (how quaintly innocent that slogan now sounds). Or maybe you represent one of those nice seats in the countryside about to be built on by HS2 contractors or housing developers, or where the farmers are about to be decimated by cheap food imports. Maybe you’re a minister enjoying the exercise of power to get things done and improve the life of the nation.

At the moment, your smirking, fun-loving, idle, self-indulgent, hypocritical, useless, mendacious leader is doing his utmost to lose you your lovely job. Understandably, you are concerned, and probably concerned enough to think about a post-Boris Johnson future. You can see, all too painfully, how much Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP enjoy having the booby outraging and disappointing the voters. The only question you should now be asking yourself is: Who would Labour most fear as the next Tory leader?

That’s a tricky question, because although there are at least three frontrunners more or less openly campaigning now, and all would probably be better than Johnson, it’s not that clear that any of them would be immediately transformative. Liz Truss is very on-trend at the moment, but only because she’s whatever any given Tory MP would like her to be. It’s difficult to think of any single achievement she has to her name for her years as a minister, passing through Defra, Justice and International Trade with nothing more to her name than an excruciating speech about cheese.

Truss is quite the political palimpsest who’s been a social democrat, moderate Tory, radical Thatcherite, Cameronite, Mayite, Johnsonite populist, Remainer and Leaver in her career, and is now the friend of the more radical, foam-flecked, impossibilist elements of the parliamentary party. If it’s endless hardline posing about Article 16 and the ECJ you want, she’s your woman; but she won’t bend the EU to her steely will, and who really wants a trade war with Europe right now?

Truss, like Johnson, actually believes in only one creed, that of cakeism, and so she will happily tell anyone that they can indeed renegotiate Brexit, and stop the boats coming over the Channel, and cut taxes, and “learn to live with Covid” and anything else they wish to hear, even if the last couple of years suggest the opposite.

The last leader they had like that was John Major, and he did well enough for a while – but remember what happened when the Tories woke up one day and realised he wasn’t quite what they’d voted for. As well as lacking any guiding principles, big ideas and any sense of purpose, Truss is also a poor public speaker, inarticulate in interviews, flat-footed in debate, is a bit robotic, sounds peevish and nasty, and has a tendency to be ridiculously regal (see official Foreign Office Christmas card). Labour has little to fear from her. Indeed, she’d be worse than Johnson, and might even be worse than May.

A nicer version of the right is of course Rishi Sunak, the Bonsai Thatcherite. He’s got some brains, obviously, an earnest kind of common sense, and seems the sort of chap the public might be able to trust. He’s a proper Leaver, though the voters are much less bothered about that than his backbenchers, and you definitely get the impression that he’d abandon all the cakeism and foolish threats to the EU and schemes to build tunnels to Ireland and new royal yachts, which is precisely what he and the Treasury have spent their time doing lately.

He’s a bit awkward and geeky, and so loaded he is out of touch with the merely rich, let alone the just-about-managing folk we used to hear so much about. Yes, the public do know that he put their taxes up and doesn’t offer much help with the cost-of-living crisis, but they would at least know that he’s trying to create some sort of post-Brexit new economic model. He might just persuade the voters that their hardships are for some greater eventual reward.

Sunak is more your tough-minded Tory than a nasty or scornful one, the austerity-with-a-purpose candidate, more like that nice David Cameron who the country used to almost like. Sunak is the Cameron reset button. Unlike Johnson or Truss, he’d be less interested in fighting the culture wars, though they have been very useful when the Tories needed a distraction. But maybe it would be better not to need such distractions in the first place? Labour would find it harder to attack Sunak on the economy, which should revert to being the main political thing once Covid and sleaze are out of the way. So yes, Sunak might help you keep your seat if you’re a frightened Tory MP.

If you really want the country to be persuaded that they’ve got a different government and that you’re making a fresh start, then a more radical departure is needed, with someone less associated with the sleaze, lies and failures of the current regime. Who better than Jeremy Hunt, runner-up in the last leadership contest, and who, in style and substance represents everything that Johnson is not? Hunt is hard-working, cautious, polite, thoughtful and competent. He is the fresh skin this tarnished lot needs.

He did, after all, refuse to serve in Johnson’s cabinet, for the very good reason that he could discern what was coming. If the Conservative Party wants to present a more honest and compassionate face to the troubled public, the emollient bedside manner of the former health secretary seems the ideal tonic.

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If I were Starmer or Rayner, I’d find Hunt especially difficult to attack, because he can plausibly claim that the idiot bloke responsible for the current mess is now gone, Hunt hasn’t been in government since 2019, and now there’s a grown-up in charge who actually gives a damn.

Perversely, Hunt, and to a lesser extent Sunak, would actually be the Tories’ dullish answer to Starmer, now that the voters no longer need or want a boisterous fairground barker in charge in our more solemn times. Michael Gove and The Saj, to a lesser extent, would also be more useful, but have the air of yesterday’s men, reminders of how long the Tories have been around. Stale.

Luckily for Labour and the other opposition parties, today’s parliamentary Conservative Party and the constituency membership who will make the ultimate choice as to our next prime minister are way to the right of the country as a whole, obsessed by Europe and immigration and don’t care what the voters think. Many of them actually believe that Johnson is too progressive and socialist with all his Covid controls, green stuff and tax hikes, and they want someone rather more radical. Many of the Tory grassroots would be happy to punish the nation and put Jacob Rees-Mogg or Steve Baker into No 10.

Labour can be sure that in such a situation, the Tories will pick someone who is basically another version of Johnson. Labour will find life a bit more difficult without The Trolley, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone that Starmer and his newly revived front bench would actually be running scared from. But they will still miss Boris Johnson when they don’t have him to kick around any more.

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