Suella Braverman leaves the stage on the right, but the Mad Hatter’s conservative tea party goes on and on | Polly Toynbee


On with the Mad Hatter’s tea party, as they all go up one place and Suella Braverman falls. This leadership race is a strangely unreal world of fantasy. Its candidates inhabit a twilight zone where true belief is all that matters. If Penny Mordaunt seems to steal the show, her advantage over the others is that she is the least known, leaving punters free to invest in her what they can hope for.

Here is a “conservative” party that just destroyed the country, threatened democratic standards, broke the rules and defied the law by behaving now as if nothing had happened. None of the leadership candidates dare mention the unspeakable – the disgrace of a prime minister they chose, knowing all there was to know about his character. Remember how he was mobbed by MPs and party members taking selfies everywhere he went? Remember how they attached themselves to him, justifying his lies, dishonesty, crony contracts and corrupt patronage? They are all in the same boat, fleeing the scene of the crime as if this shame they brought to their party and parliament never happened.

These candidates inhabit another planet for ordinary voters. Their articles of faith are far removed from the common ground where general elections are fought and won. Proving they’re the right fit for their own clan is all that matters. Yesterday Newsnight joined a discussion group in Rother Valley, South Yorkshire, which showed voters were extremely worried about prices, bills and the crippling cost of living. Yes, it’s the economy, dumb – but here we have John Stuart Mill’s “dumb party”.

The empty theology of who stood where in the Brexit referendum six long and painful years ago is still the golden key to party votes, so the candidates pledge to break the treaty of EU and to tear up the Northern Ireland protocol, whatever the consequences. “Penny will always fight for Brexit and always has,” Mordaunt’s team swear. Make Brexit Worse is their common mantra. That leaves Keir Starmer and David Lammy talking about ‘Making Brexit work’, during their current two-day visit to Berlin, meeting Chancellor Olaf Scholz to discuss how a Labor government could cooperate with the EU – and how how social democrats can win.

Back in Toryland, bring the abstract pious names. “Nation of aspiration”, promises Liz Truss, as if her party could wish that this most serious economic crisis be ruled out. Extra money is landing this week for benefit recipients, but it won’t cover rising bills. Neither candidate has addressed the £20 Rishi Sunak snatched from Universal Credit, which has pushed many into food bank shortages. Vague promises of “growth” lack specific productivity plans.

Tax cuts are not an answer. The Institute for Research on Public Policy found that if income tax were cut to 19% – at a total cost to the Treasury of £5billion – half would go to high earners, while just 2.6% would go to the most poor. No wonder the candidates are vague on economic details, preferring the distractions of a “war on revival” or ardent support for the collapse of Rwanda’s refugee plan. In the midst of a scorching heat wave, they’re backing away from net-zero promises or any serious climate talk. All that is urgent and difficult is ignored for the airy certainties of a comforting creed.

Upgrade ? Not a whisper of how to redistribute while reducing taxes. While each reaffirms their faith in the old religion of small statehood and low taxes (with more on defense), none tell us which public services they would cut. The NHS is collapsing so quickly that ambulance services are in critical condition, queuing outside hospitals where beds are jammed with no social care plan. NHS waiting lists hit new highs this week. But don’t expect any response from these candidates, who all voted budget after budget that decimated the health service.

Lacking new ideas, they instead cover the old hymns: Mordaunt actually said that the old songs were the best. Fighting for the title of ‘Heir to Thatcher’ may warm the cockles of old Tory hearts, but that name still chills many souls in those ‘red wall’ seats the Tories have to secure. Liz Truss mimics those famous Thatcher poses, while Sunak lays claim to the Thatcher mantle of fiscal rectitude. Both forget that Boris Johnson only briefly charmed those former Labor voters when he disguised himself as a break with Thatcherism, which stood for high spending, a race to the top and an end to austerity.

“Left Behind” began with Thatcher’s ruthless closure of mines and industries without replacing lost jobs or repairing abandoned communities. Like Donald Rumsfeld, she did not build a nation. None of these candidates look like nation builders either, or even rebuilders of their own party’s crumbling reputation.

Nervous fears of an impending election echo around Toryland. Whoever wins the leadership would be crazy not to call an election and grab a mini-bounce of being anyone but Boris. Things can only get worse if they wait. As a cabinet minister warned FinancialTimes, “We are heading into a shit storm. We better pick someone who knows what he’s doing.

Do any of them? Sunak will continue to obey the Treasury orthodoxy that has made us this low-growth, high-inflation country. None of these finalists have undergone a political stress test. Only in the hellfire of a general election will they find out who has the guts. Remember they once thought Theresa May was ‘strong and stable’, only for her to lose her majority in the calamitous 2017 election when they discovered too late that she was a failure.


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