Last Friday evening Conservative leadership candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss participated at a hustings in Eastbourne. Our East Sussex correspondent Nigel Jacklin went along as an observer to hear what the candidates had to say and whether they would provide answers to any of our six questions.
A Beautiful Day
IT WAS A beautifully sunny day down here in Sussex. The Sunak and Truss show came to Eastbourne’s Winter Gardens as Conservative Party members started receiving their leadership ballot papers.
As I walked towards the Winter Gardens I could hear noisy protesters who had surrounded the building. I was spotted by the event organisers and escorted through a cordon of angry RMT Union members, one of whom knocked my stuff out my hand. He looked like he was at serious risk of having a blow-out. Counter-protesters were also there, railing against the unions, arguing their support for lockdown and other draconian measures were partly to blame for the current cost of living crisis.
I was escorted to a ‘ringside’ seat and the show began. The format was an introductory speech by an MP in support of each candidate. Local Wealden MP Nus Ghani spoke in support of Liz Truss, with Dominic Raab speaking in support of Rishi Sunak. Bexhill MP Huw Merriman and Hastings MP Sally-Ann Hart provided video testimonies in support of Sunak. In order to avoid any ‘blue-on-blue’ conflicts the two candidates spoke separately, Truss first, followed by Sunak. Ghani and Truss’s stands against China got the first big round of applause.
As Truss started talking a young black hijab-wearing woman, seated in the row behind me, stood up, walked to the stage, and shouted that Truss should be ashamed of herself. She was followed by a few other protestors in the same row; all were promptly ejected. After the protest the first woman gave a video interview, posted on twitter, denouncing the Conservatives as racist. This was a bit of a stretch given that we had been listening to Nus Ghani (also a non-white female Muslim); a local Muslim Councillor, and ex-mayor, was sitting nearby and around a third of us sitting in that part of the auditorium were non-white.
No More Lockdowns
Both candidates started with their personal story. Truss told us about her Working Class Yorkshire background, Sunak about his hard working immigrant parents. They took questions from the audience after they spoke. Their speeches, answers to questions and the reaction from the room were good news for those of us who felt lockdowns did more harm than good; both candidates ruled out further lockdowns which elicited a solid round of applause from party members.
It is slightly more difficult to see where the two candidates stand on the other questions raised by Recovery. Truss was asked about the impact of lockdown on children and education; her response clearly indicated she understood the harms lockdowns had caused. Sunak spoke about the need to make the NHS more effective, a factor I believe exacerbated the impact of Covid. The impact of narrow-field specialists and the way decisions were taken was alluded to in a question about the problems of lockdown models. The response to this question and discussions about housing allocation algorithms suggested a reasonable degree of scepticism about theoretical models and their impact on decision making. A request for daily pandemic-like briefings on other issues (such as NHS waiting times) received a much more muted response.
United on Many Fronts: the Pandemic is Behind us
The room was clearly united in terms of the need to win the next election, to keep Sir Keir Starmer out and rebuild trust. The two candidates were also united in opposition to “woke leftist culture,” affirming “a woman is a woman” to further rounds of applause. The need to keep farmers farming and fight centralist bureaucracy in planning decisions was also a position held by both candidates.
I got the impression that, as far as the Conservative Party is concerned, the pandemic and lockdowns have been put behind us. Sunak referred to them as a “once in 100 years” event. The forward-looking nature of the event meant that subjects like the Covid-19 Inquiry were just not on the agenda. Not much discussion of online harms; some recognition that civil servants and others needed to go back to work in their offices. The right to protest was affirmed, the exception being where it is too disruptive for everyone else (with a specific reference to Extinction Rebellion).
At the start of the meeting the host asked the audience whether they had made up their mind who to vote for. The vast majority had not. From an anti-lockdown point of view my reading is that both candidates pass the basic test (no more lockdowns) and the Conservative membership is with us on that front. On balance, I felt reassured. For most of us, therefore, there seems little to be gained from worrying about whether Sunak or Truss wins. Obviously, the Conservatives’ ultimate goal is to win the next election. This will require unity and winning back the support of those whose trust they lost when lockdowns were implemented.
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Nigel Jacklin is a market researcher and statistician. He attended the hustings as an independent observer. You can follow him on twitter @TheGoodStatsMan.