‘I wasn’t expecting that’: The surprise winner of the latest Tory TV battle wasn’t Truss – but Sunak

Liz Truss is all too keen to excuse Boris Johnson’s ‘mistakes’ – she could be as dangerous as him

Truss claims recession 'not inevitable' despite Bank of England warning

As Coleen Rooney might put it, the big revelation from the Sky News prime ministerial double-header was that the winner was.......... Rishi Sunak. Presenter Kay Burley declared, betraying nothing more or less than the media conventional wisdom, “I wasn’t expecting that”. Perhaps, on the day the Bank of England forecast a year-long recession and 13 per cent inflation, the Tory membership is starting to realise they probably need someone leading them who has a passing acquaintance with economic sense? I wonder.

Typically in this contest – and indeed in broken, backlog Britain more widely – the technology didn’t work, and instead of fancy digital voting, Burley had to ask for a show of hands at the end. Surprise! It was a bit of a Sunak landslide. Wisely, given the public taste for conspiracy theories, Burley asked the gallery to gather as many different camera angles of the vote as possible, as if the Sky vote would become as important and disputed a historical artefact as the Zapruder footage. Ironically, if the Sky technology had worked no one would have believed it, and claimed interference by Pyongyang.

By now, like stand-up comics or stage magicians on tour, (no coincidence I suppose) the pair of wannabe global statespersons have honed, polished and finely tuned every answer, every alibi, every artful deception to perfection. Even so, and even though she’s slowly improving her act, “Scary Mary” Elizabeth Truss still sounds like she has not a clue what she is on about. She’s irritatingly evasive, as if she’s been learning too many of Boris Johnson’s bad ways.

Liz Truss during the Sky News special programme

The warning sign in any Truss remark is a variation of “what I’ve always been clear about is…”, at which point she is deliberately obfuscatory – both about what she clearly did say before and what she is seeking to actually be highly opaque about admitting now. So, according to the foreign secretary, she was, and always has been, clear that she didn’t want to cut the pay of new nurses and teachers, when that’s exactly what she set out in her doomed press release; she was clear that she’d didn’t say it was OK for British citizens to go and fight in Ukraine, when that’s exactly what she said; and she wants us to be clear that she never wanted to build on the Green Belt, when she said so, perfectly clearly, in writing, a few years ago.

To be fair, Truss did admit that she’s changed her views on some things since she was a teenage Liberal Democrat, with words to the effect that “show me someone who has the same views at 49 that they had at 19 and I’ll show you an idiot”, at which point Margaret Thatcher, teenage Thatcherite, sprung to my mind.

Sunak, as ever, was much the more impressive. He had answers to everything and was the older teachers’ favourite – Mr Lawson, who used to teach economics, and Mr Howard, head of legal studies. As ever, too, he was the show-off Head Boy on speech day demonstrating exactly why he was entitled to wear the smartest Prada uniform in big school. As a slightly needy sixth former – he said more than once he was painfully conscious that he was behind in the race and was pathetically grateful for any smattering of applause – Sunak resembles nothing so much as the sympathetic briefcase-wielding character Will McKenzie out of Channel 4 adolescent comedy The Inbetweeners. Somehow this son-in-law of a billionaire almost makes you believe he “feels your pain” when you open the gas bill.

Rishi Sunak was the winner in the eyes of the Sky News audience

Truss, by contrast, looks much more like a hard-faced, jaundiced, mum who really doesn’t care if you object to her parking her 4x4 on the Zig Zag lines. Dressed in red, and clashing sartorially with Burley, she was as cagey as ever, and almost resentful about having to answer questions in any conventional sense of the term. She certainly declined to tell Burley what the naughtiest thing she’s ever done on the grounds that her daughters would be listening (rather suggesting it’s a bit fruity). But she did declare that she had “no skeletons in the closet”, which seems to me something of a hostage to fortune, and indeed an invitation to those of us in the media who enjoy that sort of thing to go digging for some Trusstastic dirt.

Intriguingly, Truss seems all too keen to excuse Johnson’s “mistakes”, as if all Big Dog had ever got wrong was not tucking his shirt in. Truss has the same entitled air about her as Johnson, and a similar disdain for the truth, rules and conventions – or “stale orthodoxy” as she calls such things. There may be a reason why, as became clear in the “quick fire” round, she doesn’t want to have an independent ethics adviser. She’s potentially as dangerous as Johnson. We may as well be perfectly clear about that.

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