Last night’s TV debate: Truss got the draw she needed

If the Conservative leadership contest were a football match, last night’s TV debate was the first skirmish of the second half. With her 24 per cent lead in the latest YouGov poll of party members, Liz Truss arrived at the debate with the equivalent of w two goal lead. Not surprisingly, she played defence, doing nothing that risked losing her lead.

In contrast, Rishi needed to play attack – and did, with a vengeance, especially in the early stages when the questions were about taxation and the economy. However, he had a tricky tactical judgement to make: go in too hard and he might come across as a hectoring bully; go in too soft, and he might fail to demolish Trust’s argument that immediate tax cuts would curb inflation and boost growth.

Sunak decided that the risks off going in hard,  and repeatedly interrupting Truss, were less than the risks of going in soft. His tactic failed. Opinium’s survey of those who viewed the debate found their sample evenly divided as to who won the debate: Sunak 39 per cent, Truss 38 per cent. But among Tory voters, Truss lead by 47-38 per cent. Sunak did better among Labour voters, winning them by 41-30 per cent.

Tory voters are not the same as party members – the people that will choose the next Prime Minister. However, it is implausible to suppose that Tory members would have been wowed by a performance that left Tory voters unimpressed. In short, as a soccer commentator might put it, Sunak’s vigorous attacks failed to find the back of the net.

So is Truss now the certain winner? Not quite. Past leadership battles, and also the early stages of this one, have seen volatile shifts in opinion. In 2005, the Conservatives’ annual conference provided a curtain-raiser to the contest to succeed Michael Howard. At the start of the week, David Cameron was running third, with 16 per cent support, far behind both Kenneth Clarke and David Davis. By the end of the week, his support had jumped to 39 per cent, well ahead of Clarke and Davis. I think I was the first person to tell Cameron he was on course to become party leader, when I called to brief him on YouGov’s figures, ahead of publication.

It’s perfectly possible, then, for the party’s mood to change in the next ten days or so, before party members receive their ballot papers. The good news for Sunak is that it is pretty clear what the two things are that he must do. The bad news is that – as with last night’s debate – there is no evidence that he is managing to do either.

The first is destroy Truss in debate – either in tonight’s Talk TV / Sun debate or, perhaps more importantly, next week’s debate on Sky News. Last night’s plan – interrupt Truss repeatedly and talk over her – did not work. Can he dial down the hectoring, and still demolish Trussonomics? If he can, he still has a chance; if not, he won’t be able to wipe out his current two goal deficit.

Sunak’s second task is to persuade Tory party members that he his getter placed than Truss to win the next general election. Six months ago, that seemed beyond doubt. An Opinium poll, conducted at a time when Labour enjoyed a seven-point lead, found that the gap would narrow to three points if Sunak were Prime Minister – and widen to as much as 16 points if Truss took over.

The story is very different now. Last week Opinium asked a pair of questions about which government voters would prefer. Labour retained a six-point lead when the choice was Starmer versus Sunak, but it narrowed to just one point when the choice was Starmer versus Truss. Far from Sunak now being able to claim bragging rights as a potential election winner, Truss can credibly claim to have the better chance. Months of controversy over Sunak’s family finances and his tax decisions as Chancellor have taken their toll.

A word of warning. Hypothetical polling questions are often terrible predictors of future reality. The ratings of the new Prime Minister at the next election will depend on their performance once they are in Downing Street. Yet this summer, as Tory party members must make their decision, hypothetical data are all we have. Unlike last winter, Sunak cannot point to any evidence to support his argument that he is more popular with the electorate.

Politics, like football, can spring surprises. A Sunak victory cannot be ruled out. But for the moment, it’s hard to see where one goal can come from, let alone the two he needs, to wiped out Truss’s lead. Next week’s Sky News debate will be his last chance to avoid defeat.

This blog was first published by Prospect