During the first week of the primaries to lead the British Conservative Party, it was still possible to hear from some candidates toasts to unity, calls for a clean competition in which respect among colleagues prevailed Tories and solemn commitments not to enter into the dirty game of politics.
In the week in which it must be decided – probably on Wednesday – the two of the five candidates to replace Boris Johnson who will go to the next phase, and will measure their forces before 200,000 party members, hardly any of those good intentions remain standing. Former Economy Minister Rishi Sunak —still the favorite in the race—; Foreign Minister Liz Truss; the Secretary of State for Commerce, Penny Mordaunt; the Secretary of State for Municipal Government, Kemi Badenoch; and the president of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, Tom Tugendhat —perhaps the most respectful of the rest of his colleagues— have begun to launch reproaches and personal attacks at each other. The enemy to bring down, for most of them, is Sunak, because of his tax increase, which the pandemic and its enormous cost could justify, but which in a context of ideological rivalry between conservatives is a sin to reproach and blame.
But the darts were also aimed at Mordaunt, the great surprise of the competition, who holds the second position in number of votes from his fellow Conservative MPs. The foam of his popularity has begun to sink due to his ups and downs regarding such a thorny issue as gender self-determination. The policy that just a year ago stated in the parliamentary tribune that “a trans woman is a woman and a trans man is a man” is now trying to qualify, to the chagrin of its opponents, a position that does not enjoy much prestige in the conservative ranks : “I don’t think the voters in my constituency would continue to vote for me over and over again if they thought that my thinking is far from the majority’s feelings,” he tried to settle the matter in the second debate between candidates, held this Sunday on the ITV network. He already had a hard time escaping such a sticky subject in the first televised matchup between the hopefuls last Friday. Badenoch, of Nigerian origin and furious defender of Brexit, has been the toughest with Mordaunt on this matter, with an almost condescending tone for a policy that many colleagues still see very green: “I would not call her a liar, but I think that it is possible that, in some of the things that he said or promoted in the past [como ministra]did not understand what he was signing, because it is a very complex issue”, he said this weekend about the contradictions expressed by his rival.
Sunak v. Truss, for his Liberal Democrat and anti-Brexit past; Truss against Sunak, due to his weakness in dealing with the threat posed by China; Mordaunt vs. Sunak for not lowering taxes; Tugendhat v. Mordaunt for being unable to give a single detail of his economic plans. “When are you going to explain to the citizens what your plans are?”, He has tried to corner her in the debate.
The first phase of these primaries is actually decided in the corridors of Parliament. The deputies of the conservative group will vote again this Monday, and the candidate with the least support will be eliminated. So, day after day, until Wednesday there are only two left. Parliamentarians transfer their support in a strategic way, and even to preserve their own personal interests.
Television debates or speeches are not factors that can drastically alter the expectations of the competition. But they are important. A week and two debates later, Sunak still has a solid lead that suggests he will be in the final two. Mordaunt and Truss, two clear and solid bets at the beginning of last week, are at some risk – still small – of deflating. Badenoch, for whom few gave a pound sterling when he launched his candidacy, hangs on with unforeseen force. And Tugendhat, the candidate who is most identified with the moderate wing of the party – and least happy with Brexit – has managed to garner good impressions in the debates, by confronting his military record and his personal integrity with the past of lies and scandals of Johnson. The latest votes, however, suggest that he may be the first to go.
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During a month of August that is anticipated to be warm in terms of weather and the economy — there are already announced strikes in the public sector demanding a salary increase that responds to runaway inflation — Conservative affiliates will be able to meet and listen to the two candidates that remain standing, and cast their votes by mail. On September 5, one day before Parliament opens its new session, the name of the new — or new — Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will be announced.