In two years Britain’s voters will choose who they want to govern them, and given the events of the past month it is unlikely to be the Conservative Party.
This is not Labour opposition propaganda, but from Tory activists who told The National that they are deeply bruised by the bitterness and toxicity of Boris Johnson’s reign.
There is palpable disgust in the Tonbridge Conservative Association among the stalwarts of arguably England’s bluest heartland. Where the national leadership should bring a sense of renewal, it is instead sowing the seeds of dread for what is to come.
“We're imploding, it’s pure blue on blue,” said long-serving councillor Sarah Hudson.
Members are underwhelmed and angered at being presented with two candidates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, both of whom they feel lack the calibre to retain power.
“I wonder whether we've just lost the next election, no matter who wins the leadership,” councillor Piers Montague told The National.
Worse, the usually brutally effective Tory election machine appears vulnerable. “This situation shows us in confusion, without our act together and that's not a good picture,” said association chairman Dennis King, who described Mr Johnson’s departure as an “engineered train crash”.
It is these people, the 160,000 Tory party members who will vote for their new leader next month, who spent hours tramping streets and manning phones that drummed up the 14 million votes that swept Mr Johnson to a landslide victory in 2019.
A repetition of that appears unlikely now. The energy harnessed by Mr Johnson has drained away to be replaced by dismay verging on resentment that the 357 Conservative MPs up the road in Westminster created the mess.
What just happened?
Mr Johnson’s swift demise shocked members. Yes, there were the scandals over lockdown parties in Downing Street, police fines and issues over the truth, but for that to result in a prime minister’s downfall was unexpected.
“They had this great idea to get rid of Boris but no idea to fill the void once he’d gone,” said Ms Hudson, 56, who runs a snooker table refurbishment business. “MPs weren't voting for the betterment of the country, they were simply voting for themselves and who they thought could help them get up the greasy pole.”
Sitting across the table at his bungalow overlooking the swaying stalks of Kent’s wheat crop, Mr King politely waited for his colleague to finish speaking.
“This was an engineered train crash, if you don't mind me saying so,” he said. “Boris was a participant but he also didn't get full credit for the marvellous job that he did during Covid and as a statesman in Ukraine. His positives far outweigh any negatives that he had.”
Mr King, 73, has served the party since he moved from a council house in London’s Docklands, working his way up through British Telecom to become a business manager.
Mr Montague never believed that Mr Johnson “was the right person” for prime minister, suggesting that Labour was “in pieces” under its far-left leader Jeremy Corbyn making the 2019 landslide easily achievable.
The recent loss of the 24,000 majority in the Honiton and Tiverton by-election raised the question of Mr Johnson’s enduring electoral attraction. “If Boris was that great where were all those Boris supporters down in Devon?”
Truss or Sunak?
After five rounds of voting among Westminster MPs, party members are left with a choice between the foreign secretary, Ms Truss, or former chancellor Mr Sunak.
It is not a final pairing that energises Tonbridge’s activists, but who would they vote for anyway? “None of the above, is my tip,” Ms Hudson says.
Instead they discuss the impressive candidates who were eliminated by MPs ― Kemi Badenoch, Tom Tugendhat, who is their local MP, and Penny Mordaunt.
“Somebody like Tom would do a better job of galvanising the non-conservative movement,” Mr Montague said. “I just wonder whether we've just lost the next election, almost no matter what now,” he said.
While Ms Hudson did not want either candidate, after meeting Ms Truss at a hustings last weekend “she did say some things that appealed to me … or the things I wanted to hear”.
She wanted the candidates to name their Cabinet, suggesting a clear-out rather than the old regime, with “fresh blood” needed to make an impression and get experience in the next two years “before they’re out”.
Mr King is also undecided but believes that Mr Sunak’s experience on the economy makes him the better leader. “Rishi’s got an understanding of the financial and fiscal mechanisms. He understands the consequences of making promises and I think what would appeal to the British people is someone talking straight.”
Either candidate was “going to have a very tough time” in the run-up to the probable 2024 election given the financial pressures the population faces, Mr Montague said.
On that basis, he was less enamoured with the idea of Mr Sunak, a multimillionaire, attracting votes and whether he could “look me in the eye and say ‘cost of living ― I feel your pain’”.
“I just don't know whether this is the time to put the 222nd richest person in the country in charge of the party.” Reluctantly, he might plump for Ms Truss, he said, “but she wouldn’t be my first choice”.
Bring back Boris
Lamenting the demise of Mr Johnson has been a growing theme since the underwhelming televised debates between the candidates.
A “Bring Back Boris” campaign has allegedly attracted 10,000 members’ signatures. But none, it seems, in Tonbridge.
“No, we are where we are,” said Mr King before Ms Hudson interjected: “We've moved on.”
Even though she was a Boris loyalist, “we can't go back”, she said.
“I was devastated for Boris, I was in mourning when he resigned,” she said. “I've been out there for the last God knows how many years knocking on doors asking for support.”
Mr Montague gives the idea short shrift. “Boris lied constantly. He thinks the rules are for everybody else. He governs by right rather than merit. And with his rather slow exit from No 10, the talk of a comeback shows that he still genuinely doesn't get it. It's almost a madness.”
A job for a vote
Mr Montague, 49, a marketing operational manager, suggests there were dark motivations behind the final candidate selection.
“They’re certainly not the most two most popular candidates to present to the country to win the next election,” he said. “I'm not close to the Westminster machine but the only reason I can think of an MP wanting to support a candidate who they know is actually going to do worse for them in the election is that they've been promised a job for the next two years and then they'll swing off and come work for an investment bank."
One silver lining is the number of female candidates or from an ethnic minority background who reached the last eight contenders.
“I don't think anybody would have predicted that but it’s full credit to the party,” Mr Montague said. “David Cameron did an awful lot of work in broadening the theme of the Conservative Party, which is where we have to go because youngsters are not going to vote Conservative if we are seen as the party of white, middle-aged men.”
Mr King describes Britain as a “brilliant country, easy going”. He said: “You might notice what kind of skin I have like you might notice the fact I've got no hair, but we give people the benefit of the doubt. I think Kemi Badenoch really impressed, so it’s brilliant that people like her can come to the fore.”
He is also optimistic about the Conservative's future once the leadership race has completed. "We do have strong candidates to choose from who are explaining their approaches to tackling the inflation arising from the pandemic, the war and global supply issues."
“I'm blind to it all,” Ms Hudson said in reference to skin colour. “I simply want to listen to the policies that they're talking about and what came over clearly in all of the candidates is that they're incredibly intelligent.”
With disillusioned and disgruntled supporters, there will be little fanfare or goodwill for the next Conservative leader.
“But we will get through this,” Mr King said. “We have to say that the Conservative brand is what will give you continuity, that most people in this country are definitely Conservative and we have to remind them of that.”
Mr Montague was less bullish. “It will be a horrible time to be to be prime minister, they are not going to have an easy ride.”