As Conservative party members filed into the latest leadership hustings at a baking hot Cheltenham racecourse, very few among this important electorate seemed enthused by the two-way race.
Neither of the runners – foreign secretary Liz Truss nor ex-chancellor Rishi Sunak – excited much Tory passion, nor seemed the subject of heavy betting. Some of those who attended, and who will decide the identity of the new prime minister, suggested they had come along out of duty, to choose the least worst option on offer.
“Neither of the above,” said an elderly gentleman who preferred not to give his name. “I’m afraid we just don’t get the quality of people coming into politics these days,” was his glum assessment before proceedings began.
If the many party members interviewed by the Observer had any pre-hustings preferences, they were tentative and seemed open to change. People were there because they wanted to know and hear more, not to have their prejudices confirmed.
Lucy Coxall, a project manager for a London design company, who had travelled from Wiltshire, said she was genuinely undecided and irritated at media reports that Truss had it in the bag already. “It is ridiculous to suggest it is already over. I really want to hear what the candidates have to say,” she said.
Caroline Baldwin, who runs a property business with her husband, said she was leaning to Truss but not firmly, while Jude Walker, who used to vote Labour, but had switched to the Tories a few years ago because she liked Boris Johnson, seemed to wish the dethroned PM could carry on, as she arrived to assess the qualities of his potential successors.
Ned Bowron, who runs an outside events business and is deputy chair of membership and fundraising for Stroud Conservatives, said he too was leaning in the Truss direction but was open to persuasion by Sunak, while Bob Griffin, who runs an export business, preferred Truss on the evidence thus far.
Two hours of speeches and interrogation later, many views had changed. Some undecideds had made up their minds, some decideds had switched allegiances, while others had just hardened their opinions in the direction they were already leaning. Strikingly, the movement was by no means all – or even predominantly – towards the hot favourite Truss.
The previously agnostic Coxall had decided to plump decisively for Sunak on the basis of what she had seen and heard. “I was much more convinced by Rishi and thought he had an answer for everything on the economy,” she said afterwards. “He presented himself with energy. He sounded so much more progressive and had so much more of a vision for the future. Everything from Liz was short-term thinking.” If Truss were to become prime minister, Coxall believes the Tories will have less chance of victory at the next general election.
Griffin, on the other hand, had become more convinced that Truss was the right choice after the meeting: “What she was trying to sell me was a genuine ‘to do list’ while what he was selling was ‘Rishi Sunak for prime minister’.”
Both Bowron and Baldwin, however, had gone from preferring Truss to thinking better of Sunak than they had before. “Liz’s financial plans seemed, well, rather unbudgeted and rather worrying,” said Bowron. “I am pretty sure I will vote for Rishi now. I think he is a safer pair of hands. Liz doesn’t seem to understand that those who most need help don’t pay tax and yet she is going on about tax cuts.” Baldwin was also concerned that Truss’s tax plans would not help the most needy. “I was leaning to her but now I am not sure,” she said.
This weekend, with less than three weeks to go before voting ends, Truss is way ahead of Sunak, according to opinion polls of the Tory membership.
Today’s survey of 570 Conservative members, by Opinium, for the Observer, gives Truss a 22-point lead. She is on 61% to Sunak’s 39%. About 47% say they know who they will vote for, although it did not feel that way on Thursday night. This may be because those who choose to attend official hustings are by definition people who are still open to persuasion. Both Bowron and Coxall said after the hustings they were convinced that the eventual result would be much closer than the pundits were predicting, or than the polls were currently showing.
Where this latest poll is perhaps most intriguing is in the lack of enthusiasm it shows for either Truss or Sunak among those who must choose the next leader of the party and country after September 5. This is evident when those with a vote in the contest are offered the choice of either Truss or Sunak, against the theoretical option of Johnson remaining leader and prime minister. Asked who they would prefer in No 10 – Johnson or Truss – 63% of Conservative members said they would prefer to keep Johnson while only 22% would rather have Truss. When the offer is Johnson staying on, versus Sunak taking over, 68% say Johnson and just 19% Sunak. Chris Curtis of Opinium says sellers’ remorse is setting in as far as Johnson is concerned. “It could be down to people forgetting how bad things got, or a lack of appetite for the replacements,” he said.
But it is hardly encouraging for the eventual winner to know that three times as many of their party’s own voters would now prefer to have the previous leader than either of them to fight for a fifth consecutive Tory win at the next general election. Inside the hustings at Cheltenham, there were cheers for Truss and Sunak in equal measure. But there was deep uncertainty – and plenty who were unimpressed. In the top tier, two men sat observing wryly. They said they were both remainers and did not warm to either candidate. One of them told the Observer: “I don’t even vote Conservative any more. I just haven’t given up my membership. I couldn’t vote for either of them.”