Is this really the fourth term of Conservative Government? After all, the first term, lasting five years, was a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The second saw a small majority for David Cameron, and ended within little more than twelve months.
The third saw Theresa May lose that majority, and fall within three years. The fourth will see Boris Johnson enter and exit within roughly the same timeframe.
All that within twelve years: Brexit and Covid have compressed the ordinary political cycle. Four Tory terms of four years each would have run to 2026,16 years in all. Four of five years each would have taken us to 2030.
That would be two years longer than the Margaret Thatcher-John Major continuum of 18 consecutive governing years. Instead, those four terms will be squeezed into 14 years maximum. Which could have consequences for the psychology of this contest.
Conservative members may approach it asking which candidate would best deal with the crises of our day: cost of living, Ukraine war, the threat to the Union, the skewed distribution of housing and capital between the generations.
Or they may ask themselves which candidate is more likely to win the next general election for the Conservatives. Some will doubtless do both. But others will view the contest in the light of the recent past, not the immediate future.
They will pose themselves the question I posed earlier, but with a focus on the delivery of change. We are twelve years into Conservative government, they will ask themselves, so why isn’t this a more conservative country?
For the longer the Tories are in opposition, the more members want them back in government. That’s why they took a punt on David Cameron in 2005, despite him being the more left-leaning of the two finalists.
But the longer the party is in government, the more those activists ask: what’s the point? Why hold office at all if we don’t shift the dial?
In one sense, the question is unfair. The BorisJohnson/Dominic Cummings duo delivered Brexit – the biggest governing change in Britain since the Thatcher years, and with even bigger governing implications.
Cameron gave us the referendum that made it possible. His government drove down the structural deficit. Michael Gove conjured up the academies and free schools programme. Iain Duncan Smith installed Universal Credit.
But though the Tory actors on stage have come and gone, and played their parts as best they could, many Tory activists will cast a cold eye on what they see as the same old scenery, stage staff, and script.
The Militant Tendency spoke of the commanding heights of the economy. Who controls the commanding heights of our culture, and what shapes so many of the thoughts and crafts so many of the words that our political actors deliver?
I’ve space only to delve into one aspect of the answer, and so select a consistent element of the script under all of the UK’s main parties: the official doctrines of equality, inclusion and diversity.
Parliament, the civil service, the judiciary, the armed forces, the quangocracy – all must become more diverse, inclusive and equal, we are told. And in a multi-racial and multicultural country there will always be a lot of truth in the claim.
But not the whole of it. Which equality? Before the law? Of opportunity? Of outcome? What diversity – of ethnicity alone? Of class? Of thought? And who are the lest included, and from what?
These are not questions that bother the average voter. But Conservative members, not ordinary punters, will choose their next Party leader, and thus the next Prime Minister. And the consequences of those official doctrines preoccupy many of them.
During the Thatcher years, Party members wanted economic change. Obviously, they will now be concerned with the threat to their living standards, and the row between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss over how to tackle it will help to swing their votes.
But my sense is that the change they most want now is not so much economic as cultural – or rather both, since the two are interconnected. After all, equality of outcome requires mass state intervention. That intervention requires high taxes.
So does what many Tories see as the diversity and inclusion industry, and the burdens it places on smaller businesses that bigger ones can bear. Though for some of them, the cultural costs of woke are even higher.
Defund the police, and order breaks down. Rubbish your history in education, and your sense of self-confidence breaks collapses. Neglect out-of-favour groups – such as the white working class – and there can be no true social cohesion.
Most Party members may not know who Munira Mirza is, or have read the Sewell Report‘s demolition of the claim that all ethnic minorities are disadvantaged compared to the majority, or mastered Raghib Ali’s research into how disparities really work.
But they get the point intuitively. I cite the push for diversity almost at ransom – as an example of how, to many Tory members, the actors on stage may change but the script remains the same, because those who write it aren’t removed at election time.
You may think that this view of theirs is hysterical, and that these Conservatives have matters out of proportion; or point out that they are disproportinately old, male and white compared to the rest of the population.
But they are not racists or reactionaries: were they so, the Conservatives would not have produced such a diverse spread of leadership candidates in this poll: Sajid Javid, Nadhim Zahawi and Suella Braverman, plus Sunak and Truss themselves.
Which takes us to another of those candidates, Kemi Badenoch. The reason why her campaign got halfway round the Tory world while the other candidates were getting their boots on is that she caught the desire of so many Conservative activists for change.
I suspect the winner of this contest will be the candidate who best captures the Badenochian vibe – and convinces Conservative activists that they will make Britain a more conservative country if elected.
If our survey and YouGov’s polls are right, that is a bigger challenge for Sunak. The danger for him is that his tax battle with Truss becomes an economic Stalingrad into which he is sucked into with mounting losses.
Perhaps it is too late for him, after those tax rises, his resignation and the Green Card row, to refigure himself in members’ eyes as the Sunak of furlough, before the bills came in – back into the winning guy they’d happily have as a son-in-law.
For crafting a conservative alternative to the official doctrine, exposing the bad faith actors who try to delegitimise it, and persuading civil society to run with it takes time.
It’s one thing to have a Prime Minister’s Office geared up, say, to stopping civil servants using Black Lives Matter hashtags; it would be another to change the Equalities Commission into an Opportunities Commission.
Truss has made a start in this arena as Minister for Women and Equalities, but no more. Sunak has been focused on the economy, and we have little sense of what he thinks.
Winning elections is a good thing and governing well is even better. But the key to this election may well be that Conservative members plump for the most conservative candidate.
Is that so hard to understand? The ballot opens in fewer than ten days. Both candidates are running out of time. Especially the former Chancellor, if those polls are right.