Conservative party members should be stripped of their power to pick Britain’s next prime minister, a senior MP has said, citing concerns about the increasingly hostile public attacks by the campaigns of Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss on their rival.
Charles Walker, a former longstanding vice-chair of the 1922 Committee, which oversees the rules for internal party no-confidence votes and leadership elections, said the contest “should have got nowhere near” the 180,000 Tory grassroots activists who will decide Boris Johnson’s replacement in just over a month.
He suggested that letting the party faithful pick a new prime minister was an idea “well past its sell-by date” and added it was inevitable that the current rules would lead to “shrill and accusative” blue-on-blue attacks by the candidates.
“It’s a view shared by many of my colleagues privately who wouldn’t dare say it publicly,” Walker said. “MPs should be left to pick party leaders because we know the strength and weaknesses of the candidate far better than the membership because we serve and work with them every day in Westminster.”
Walker’s intervention came as some senior Tory figures warned of the potentially lasting damage that Sunak and Truss’s attempts to land blows on each other could do to the party and government. One MP described the slanging match by their supporters as “beyond the pale”.
Norman Fowler, the former Lord Speaker and a cabinet minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government, said the BBC showdown between Truss and Sunak had been “a bad night for the Conservatives” and substantially benefited Labour. “They’ve got enough clips from that programme to last them through to the next election,” he said.
Sunak “had authority and a better financial package, but his bedside manner is, frankly appalling”, said Fowler, who criticised the former chancellor for having repeatedly “hectored and interrupted” his opponent.
Fowler said the foreign secretary came across as “much more pleasant”, but added her economic plans “sounded a bit dodgy” and she had harked back to “project fear”.
Malcolm Rifkind, another Thatcher-era cabinet minister, said the debate had “descended into trivia”, with attacks on Sunak for his expensive suits and shoes. But he said both candidates’ offers to serve in each other’s governments were an important demonstration of unity, and that any residual bitterness by the losing camp would be wiped away at a general election.
Several Tory observers who have not backed a candidate accused Truss’s supporters in particular of unpleasant briefings and acting like “rottweilers”.
But the foreign secretary’s allies suggested Sunak had spent the Monday night debate “mansplaining” with “shouty, private school behaviour”. Simon Clarke, who is backing her, said his former boss at the Treasury had been “pretty aggressive”.
Sunak and Truss were pitted head-to-head in TalkTV’s debate on Tuesday evening, and will face each other for the final time next Thursday. While they will tour the UK during a dozen hustings hosted by the Conservative party, they are not expected to be pitted against each other but grilled separately by an interviewer and party members.
Giles Kenningham, a former director of communications in No 10 under David Cameron, said that given repeated polls put Truss ahead among Tory members’, Sunak had failed to “find a way to move the dial”.
“Truss has shown to be quite a steady performer, so he can’t just rely on her to mess up,” Kenningham said, adding that Sunak would have to “take more risks”, given members will start receiving ballots on 1 August.
Despite the Conservatives having not led in an opinion poll since December 2021, Kenningham said the party’s position was still recoverable and that Labour should have expected to be significantly further ahead.
But Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s national campaign coordinator, said the leadership race was “giving us a wealth of material”.
“We are obviously using some now and we’ll have plans for more later as the contest progresses and as we gear up for the next general election, whenever that might be,” she told HuffPost UK.
“I’ll be able to say to people on the doorstep ‘you don’t have to take my word for it any more folks, just listen to them’. The trashing of their own record, I think that you’d expect us to take advantage of that, which we will be doing so fulsomely.”