DAN HODGES: As PM-in-waiting, Liz Truss now must start speaking to Britain and not just Tory Party activists
‘We have got to accept we’re about to face a very difficult four months,’ an ally of Liz Truss told me.
‘Our party is going to need everyone to unite behind Liz. If they don’t, she’s going to find it impossible to deliver anything, and the country will get Starmer as PM. People have to make their minds up now. They either take the Blue Pill with Liz, or the Red Pill with Rishi.’
The Red/Blue Pill reference comes from the Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves.
‘You take the blue pill… the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe,’ Reeves is told. ‘Or you take the red pill… you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.’
Given that his character Neo takes the red pill, then embarks on a successful rebellion against an evil authoritarian regime, the analogy is imperfect. But Team Truss don’t care.
Liz Truss still doesn’t seem to quite believe she has Sunak beaten. She’s still shovelling out statements and policy positions primarily designed to appeal to Tory Party members. By doing so, she’s beginning to drive a wedge between herself and the country as a whole
They believe Rishi Sunak is now following a kamikaze strategy, attacking with such blind ferocity that he has decided he either turns the contest around and wins the leadership himself, or destroys her and the Government in the attempt.
What finally triggered Truss’s anger was an incendiary press release issued last week, in which Sunak claimed she was ‘divorced from reality’ over her belief that the cost-of-living crisis should primarily be mitigated by tax cuts, rather than handouts.
‘They’ve basically gone mad,’ one Truss supporter told me. ‘They’re losing, and have decided that if they can’t win then they’re just going to burn the entire house down.’
As a result, Truss has decided that if any similar attacks are launched by Sunak and his supporters, they will be permanently ostracised from her government.
Campaign insiders have refused to name any names. But as well as Sunak, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, former Chief Whip Mark Harper and backbench ‘attack dog’ Richard Holden have all been prominent critics of the Foreign Secretary and some of her policy stances.
Sunak’s team furiously reject the charge their man is fighting a dirty campaign. They point to attacks by leading Truss allies, singling out a Twitter meme circulated by Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries depicting Sunak as Brutus attacking Boris Johnson’s Caesar.
Sunak’s increasing political belligerence is likely to produce only three outcomes. First, handing Labour valuable ammunition – I expect the campaign posters of Sunak claiming ‘Liz Truss is divorced from reality’ are already being prepared
They say calls for unity are wide of the mark, claiming that Sunak enjoys the support of a majority of Tory MPs. And they insist that it is actually Truss’s cost-of-living policies that are playing into Sir Keir Starmer’s hands.
‘The idea that from Day One as PM, Liz wouldn’t have to adopt Rishi’s position on cost-of-living is for the birds,’ one Sunak supporter told me.
‘That’s the reality we face this winter, and while she can play to the gallery now, she’ll be crucified if she doesn’t U-turn on this.’
All of which may be true. But Team Sunak’s rebuttal ignores an inconvenient but important fact.
In three weeks, Truss will surely be Britain’s new Prime Minister. Rishi Sunak will not be.
‘We have got to accept we’re about to face a very difficult four months,’ an ally of Liz Truss told me. ‘Our party is going to need everyone to unite behind Liz. If they don’t, she’s going to find it impossible to deliver anything, and the country will get Starmer as PM. People have to make their minds up now. They either take the Blue Pill with Liz, or the Red Pill with Rishi.’
Sunak’s increasing political belligerence is likely to produce only three outcomes. First, handing Labour valuable ammunition – I expect the campaign posters of Sunak claiming ‘Liz Truss is divorced from reality’ are already being prepared. Second, reinforcing the – inaccurate – perception he is disloyal and duplicitous.
The reality is that Johnson needed to be removed, and Sunak had passed up numerous opportunities to resign. Third, a number of Sunak supporters will seize the opportunity to swap a losing campaign for a winning one, citing a need for party unity as their excuse.
None of this may be fair. But politics, like life, isn’t fair. And Sunak needs to recognise his dream of being Prime Minister is over.
But there are lessons, too, for Liz Truss.
The reality is that Johnson needed to be removed, and Sunak had passed up numerous opportunities to resign, writes Dan Hodges, pictured
She has run a skilful campaign that has successfully reached out to the Tory grassroots. As Lord Ashcroft’s research, seen by The Mail on Sunday reveals, not only is she a favourite with Tory members, but she is also a favourite with Tory voters (38 per cent Truss, 29 per cent Sunak), and that crucial sub-set of 2019 Tory ‘defectors’ who backed Boris but say they don’t currently intend to support the party again (33 per cent Truss, 25 per cent Sunak).
But by continuing to focus on a narrow electoral constituency of Tory activists, Truss has started to make mistakes. She unveiled a policy of cutting pay for public sector workers outside of London and the South East, then was forced to abandon it 12 hours later. She launched an unsubstantiated attack on ‘woke’ civil servants she claimed were guilty of fuelling anti-Semitism.
She attacked the levying of an additional windfall tax on energy companies, saying ‘it would send the wrong message’.
And she has sent out increasingly contradictory messages on support for those facing rocketing fuel bills, first playing down targeted support, then pledging to act to help hard-pressed consumers.
None of these blunders is a game-changer. With his own track record, Sir Keir Starmer is hardly in a position to exploit flip-flopping over leadership campaign pledges.
People won’t besiege the nation’s phone-ins to angrily exclaim: ‘That bloody Liz Truss! She said she wouldn’t help me with my energy bills, but now she has!’ But her flip-flops are starting to be noticed by voters who have largely tuned out from the Tory leadership fisticuffs.
As part of Lord Ashcroft’s research, people were asked what words they most associated with the candidates. Truss was described as ‘trustworthy’, ‘capable’ and ‘down to earth’. But the word most frequently used to characterise her was ‘unsure’.
In an election, complacency can undermine the candidate who is in the lead. But insufficient complacency can be a danger, too.
Liz Truss still doesn’t seem to quite believe she has Sunak beaten. She’s still shovelling out statements and policy positions primarily designed to appeal to Tory Party members. By doing so, she’s beginning to drive a wedge between herself and the country as a whole.
Take, for example, the cost-of-living crisis. It cannot be solved by simply relying on traditional free-market orthodoxy. People need their Government to protect them from unsustainable energy costs.
And that requires direct state intervention. The public aren’t interested in philosophical lectures about the triumph and glory of capitalism. They urgently want a Prime Minister who will nail the fat-cat energy profiteers to the wall.
In any party leadership campaign, there comes a time when the winning candidate needs to pivot. To shift their focus from the immediate constituency to the future, wider one.
For Liz Truss, that time is now.
On-the-hoof policy pronouncements have to be parked. Inflammatory press-releases must be shredded. And she needs to start speaking to Britain, not just 100,000 Tory party members.
In 22 days’ time, Liz Truss will become Prime Minister. She needs to recognise it. And she needs to start acting like it.
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