The Tory leadership contest has been bitterly fought. The final weeks have seen Rishi Sunak continue to fight on aggressively, with some accusing him of adopting a ‘scorched earth’ policy in response to Liz Truss’ seemingly unassailable poll lead. At the same time, Boris Johnson loyalists are whispering about comebacks and buyers’ remorse. If Truss triumphs, she can’t afford to focus solely on the challenges facing the country. Instead one of her first tasks will be to reunite the party.
Having spent six weeks charming the Tory party membership, Truss and her team will need to return their attention to MPs. Sunak and his allies could make for formidable enemies from the backbenches, something Truss could do without. Similarly, the majority of Tory MPs did not back Truss at the final round of the parliamentary voting stage. Admittedly many have backed her since, with the hope of a job or carrying favour with the next regime, but fickle fair weather support will only last so long. The typical poll bounce of a new leader may ensure the Truss train gets off to a good start but with the cost of living crisis, rising energy bills, the Northern Ireland protocol and the ongoing Ukraine conflict, political volatility could easily knock it off course.
How then, can Truss go about becoming the unifying figure that her party badly needs? Policy will be important. But Truss’ premiership will also live or die by the effectiveness of its communications strategy. Thankfully for Truss, she has the opportunity to learn from some of her predecessors’ mistakes.
Take party management. Boris Johnson made no secret of the fact he didn’t particularly enjoy wining and dining backbench MPs in the tearooms of Westminster. At the same time, the Tory party has become increasingly factionalist under successive governments. Caucuses of MPs including the European Research Group, Northern Research Group and the One Nation Tories now hold significant sway over swathes of backbenchers. A concerted effort to show she is listening to MPs’ often competing policy aims won’t solve everything, but it would be a step in the right direction.
Truss has also got to find an opponent for the Tories to unite against. During Johnson’s period in government the enemy changed by the week. One minute it was the civil service, the next the EU, the next unions, the next the media. Although Truss’ government will undoubtedly clash with many of the same organisations and people as Johnson’s regime, she should focus her party’s attention on the 2024 election. Labour’s knives have been sharpening for some time and during the leadership contest, Tory infighting has been doing that for them. The opposition looks increasingly like a government in waiting. The prospect of ten years in the wilderness, sat across from a Starmer/Sturgeon coalition, may yet keep even the most rebellious of Tories in line.