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Policy narrative shift in the Tory leadership contest

We are a mere week into the official Tory leadership campaign, and we are already seeing a dramatic shift (or full 180 in some cases) when it comes to a policy narrative.

Of the eight candidates left after the preliminary elimination round, six served in Boris Johnson’s government, and most in senior roles. All of them pledged their support to key Johnson administration goals – most notably levelling up, net zero and the need for tax rises in the aftermath of covid. But this leadership contest is seeing candidates pushing a significantly different narrative when it comes to these policy areas.

Whilst it may feel like some time ago that the government put forward policies, and weren’t just constantly firefighting the latest scandal, it was really not all that long ago that ‘levelling up’ was at the centre of government ambitions. All departments were instructed to come up with ways to fit levelling up into their agenda, and government ministers seemingly found it impossible to answer any questions without pointing to their party’s ultimate higher goal to level up the country. Despite government ministers all pronouncing their undying commitment to the cause at the time, Tom Tugenhat (who sat firmly on the sidelines of Johnson’s government) and Liz Truss have been the sole leadership hopefuls to pledge to save the levelling up agenda. The cause has scarcely been mentioned, let alone championed, in this leadership contest.

The Tory green consensus is also coming under threat, with several leadership contenders saying they would either delay or revise the net zero target, and Kemi Badenoch going further to brand net zero ambitions as “unilateral economic disarmament”. The green agenda was one of the flagship policies of the Johnson administration – with cabinet ministers and backbench MPs alike professing its profound importance to the nation; and yet, it has barely received so much of a positive mention this time round.

The narrative of this leadership contest could possibly best be described as a race to the bottom when it comes to cutting taxes and cracking down on ‘wokeism’. Between vows to reverse the National Insurance rise, cut income tax, slash corporation tax, and half fuel duty, Tory leadership hopefuls are spurring each other on, and in doing so, promising tax cuts in the tens of billions of pounds. And it’s not just in fiscal matters that we are seeing candidates try to out-do each other, the race is quickly becoming a contest of anti-woke credentials – with matters of gender identity and bathroom usage dominating the debate.

So what is behind this almost overnight shift in policy narrative? Conservative leadership hopefuls are pandering to the right. In a bid to pick up support from MPs and party members (who are typically more ideological than your average voter) those in the race are seeking to brand themselves as the heirs to true conservatism – Thatcher reincarnated. With the centre ground in politics looking more and more scarce, it is a common sense strategy. The question remains, will the anti-woke, tax-cutting agenda still be the policy narrative when it comes to a general election?

With only a fraction of the country expressing their view on who the next Prime Minister will be, there is still no clear answer as to whether a new leader with a radically different policy programme would require a fresh mandate to push an anti-woke agenda and tear up net-zero targets? A continuation candidate can easily claim they hold a mandate from the public; whereas the public have had very limited say on the latest policy promises made by candidates in a bid to win over the right of the Tory party. Any new leader will want to make the most of an 80 seat majority, and with how the polls look now, will likely want to avoid the fate of Theresa May of gambling with a majority only to regret losing it, so we could find ourselves in a bit of a limbo when it comes to a policy mandate.


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