LONDON — The race to succeed Boris Johnson is just one week old, but already the U.K. Conservatives are living up to their reputation as the “nasty party.”
Dirty dossiers, claims of backroom stitch-ups, explosively timed Whitehall leaks and bitter behind-the-scenes briefing wars are all adding up to what many observers judge has been the dirtiest Tory leadership contest of recent times.
Such is the rancor that former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt issued a stark warning shot to colleagues as he was eliminated from the race Wednesday night.
“A gentle word of advice to the remaining candidates: smears and attacks may bring short term tactical gain, but always backfire long term,” he tweeted. “The nation is watching, and they’ve had enough of our drama.”
Another failed candidate, Sajid Javid, condemned the “poisonous gossip” being circulated by rival camps. A third, Nadhim Zahawi, said last week he was “clearly being smeared.”
But the key players left in the game show little sign of listening.
“Things are getting really nasty,” one senior campaign adviser lamented. “You’ve got MPs who are terrible people, they are so vain and venal. The only thing they care about more than ambition for themselves is destroying the people they dislike.”
“I wish some of them would just dial it down,” another campaign adviser sighed.
Frontrunner Rishi Sunak, whose resignation as chancellor last week was seen as the main catalyst for Johnson’s final downfall, has been on the receiving end of the most openly-hostile briefings.
In the hours after Sunak quit, Johnson loyalist Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit opportunities minister now backing Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, reportedly attacked Sunak’s “much-lamented socialist” record — a truly damning indictment (in Conservative circles, at least) of a recent Cabinet colleague.
Within days, a brutal anti-Sunak dossier was being circulated by rival camps on Tory WhatsApp groups, branding the former chancellor a liar and questioning his judgment and loyalty.
The influential Daily Mail newspaper, a bastion of the Tory Right, has also waded in with a series of striking anti-Sunak front pages, attacking his tax policies and linking him to Johnson’s controversial former adviser Dominic Cummings — a hate figure among many Conservative MPs.
Even advisers in rival camps say things have gone too far.
“I think it’s unfortunate. I don’t think we need to go to that level,” said an adviser in a third rival campaign — before immediately adding slyly: “[Sunak’s] record speaks for itself. He’s got high taxes and he’s now trying to pivot to be a kind of Thatcherite.”
Sunak’s rivals, however, insist it’s not all one-way traffic, with one of Sunak’s own campaign chiefs also accused of deploying underhand tactics and “dark arts.”
Sources in multiple rival camps accuse prominent Sunak supporter Gavin Williamson, a former party enforcer with a Machiavellian reputation, of using a combination of threats and secret tactical voting techniques to try to keep certain candidates off the final ballot.
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries directly accused Williamson of “dirty tricks,” as she retweeted claims he had “organised [the] syphoning-off of some votes,” hoping to aid candidates Sunak appears more likely to beat in a final head-to-head.
The first campaign adviser quoted above also claimed Williamson — a highly effective chief whip for former Prime Minister Theresa May, with a somewhat checkered subsequent career — has been aggressively calling MPs to seek their support, warning them directly: “There’s nobody better than I am at this.”
“It’s just such a weird arrogance,” the adviser said. “It’s true, he is good at doing this stuff — being horrible and making other people feel unpleasant and uncomfortable. But it’s diametrically opposed to being good at being a minister, which he was absolutely terrible at.”
The second adviser said Williamson’s involvement was “not even kind of subtle.”
A Sunak campaign spokesperson said the claims were “categorically untrue,” and that they were “running a clean, honest campaign.” Williamson has yet to publicly comment.
Timing is everything
Also raising eyebrows have been a series of exquisitely-timed leaks from within government about several of the leading candidates to succeed Johnson.
These included potentially damaging revelations about the past tax arrangements of both Zahawi and Javid, and the leaking of internal emails concerning Kemi Badenoch — another leadership contender — and her supposed support for controversial new laws governing online safety.
Zahawi complained he was “clearly being smeared” and had “always” paid his taxes and “declared” them in the U.K. Javid insisted he had “nothing to add” about his past tax affairs.
Both men, however, were knocked out in the first rounds of the contest on Tuesday and Wednesday evening.
Advisers insist there is a fine line between the “legitimate testing of people,” and stuff that goes “above and beyond” — such as reports in the Sunday Times that at least two leadership campaign teams had handed the opposition Labour Party a “digital dossier containing a series of lurid allegations about their potential opponents.”
Everything has changed
Keith Simpson, a historian and former Conservative MP who has watched more than two decades’ worth of leadership contests up close, said the “divisions” within the current party are plain to see.
“You’ve got at one end the survivors of Boris Johnson — the Jacob Rees-Moggs and others — who are desperate to portray Sunak as a socialist, and God alone knows what else,” he said. “Anything to stop him.”
The most hard-nosed Brexiteers were also desperate to have one of their own in the final head-to-head, he added.
Simpson suggested modern technology has played a hand in widening factional divisions, both within and beyond the Conservative Party.
“In 20-odd years so much has changed, the most obvious being social media,” he added. “The amount of contemporaneous information available now to MPs, or indeed to Conservative Party activists, is on a vast scale.”
But Robert Hayward, a Tory peer and polling expert, reckons that for all its unpleasantness, the current battle has yet to surpass the sheer drama of previous leadership contests.
Hayward cited the memorable 2016 post-Brexit referendum race to replace David Cameron, when Johnson’s most prominent supporter and Vote Leave ally Michael Gove suddenly made the “stunning announcement” that Johnson was unfit for government. Gove withdrew his support and launched his own campaign, ending Johnson’s hopes. “We haven’t had a moment like that yet,” Hayward said.
He also believes the rancor will quickly die down. ”There are all sorts of things being thrown about at the moment, but it is only going to last a few days,” Hayward said.
For the first adviser quoted, however, this contest ranks far above others in terms of “how divorced it is from actual priorities,” and for the “rancor that has built up” within the party.
Whether the Tories can kiss and make up when the contest is over is an open question — and the verdict of the wider public remains to be seen.
“There will be a lot of people being put off [by the public back-biting],” Hayward warned. “It is the biggest single public error.”