Narrow bridges

EXCLUSIVE: We will have to build bridges in politics and society after this leadership race

Britain has never really had a proactive strategy to bridge the divides in our society. A new Prime Minister has the possibility of proposing one.

Conservative leadership candidate Rishi Sunak (Photo by Jonathan Hordle/ITV via Getty Images)

By: Sunder Katwala, Director, British Future

ELECTIONS are dividing – and the race to determine the next Tory leader is no different. Each candidate for the post of Prime Minister has reminded the Conservatives that they will have to unite around whoever emerges as leader. But calls for a clean contest have been honored more in the breach than in observance, as supporters of different campaigns engage in deadly briefings to try to weed out a rival in an uphill battle to make the final two names .

It has been a remarkably fluid and topsy-turvy day-to-day competition.

Rishi Sunak started out on top winning the first two rounds of MPs. Penny Mordaunt emerged as the bookmakers’ favorite with a considerable lead in polls of party members before hitherto little-known Kemi Badenoch topped a poll of Conservative Party members.

Tom Tugendhat’s speech on a good start proved the most popular with the audience of the first televised debate. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has a way to victory if she can fight her way to the polls.

“We are tired of division. Politics at its best is a unifying enterprise. And I’ve spent my career bringing people together,” Sunak said in his campaign launch video.

It is only 18 months since Lord Ashcroft, publishing a biography of Sunak, said the most striking thing was how he rose so quickly in Westminster without making any enemies. Sunak has certainly acquired some by now.

Those most loyal to Prime Minister Boris Johnson are said to have openly embarked on a ‘stop Sunak’ revenge mission, after the former chancellor’s resignation helped spark an avalanche of ministerial resignations.

Sunak finds himself becoming a polarizing figure in the party contest, although being Covid chancellor gives him one of the strongest public profiles. He will likely need new allies on the right of the party for his pitch to party members.

Unity was also Mordaunt’s message. She offered a model of teamwork leadership: “a little less about the leader and a lot more about the ship.” Yet Morduant has also come under fierce fire from his own side. Like Sunak, Mordaunt is a 2016 leaver who is more socially liberal than the median conservative. Former contestant Suella Braverman called her a “woke” conservative over the weekend.

The new leader faces several daunting tasks, from restoring confidence in politics to navigating the economic storm of a cost of living crisis in an uncertain world. A new prime minister will face calls for a snap general election – and is forced to call one within two and a half years. This looming party political contest as well as the arguments in Scotland over the upcoming independence referendum mean that politics will focus on what we disagree on.

Thus, the aspiration to unite, and not to divide, will be difficult. That Britain is a more anxious and divided society than any of us would like is something most people can agree on. Yet Britain has never really had a proactive strategy to bridge the divides in our society. A new Prime Minister has the possibility of proposing one.

The “leveling up” was declared to be the mission of the government, reflected in the rebranding of the Department of Communities and Housing. The disbanding of Michael Gove’s ministerial team during Johnson’s collapse disrupted plans for developing political substance. The new leadership will need to show how the focus on tax cuts and shrinking the state in a contest against parties can be combined with commitments to reduce place-based inequality. Opposition parties can also explain how they could make leveling happen. There is a common-sense public consensus on the foundations of social ties.

Sunder Katwala, Director, British Future

Ensure that everyone can speak the language; having coeducational rather than segregated schools; and the availability of places where people can meet and mingle were recurring themes in recent Talk Together public engagement research conducted by the British Future for the Together Coalition. The government had the green shoots of an integration strategy when Sajid Javid was communities secretary, with remarkably positive results in five pilot integration areas, but plans to expand it have been stalled by pandemic pressures.

A chance to rekindle this comes from the huge public appetite to participate in hospitality initiatives. The tens of thousands of Britons hosting refugees from Ukraine are just the tip of the iceberg of untapped civic energy, with millions more willing to engage, in every country and region. The leadership candidates spoke of inclusive patriotism.

This can be translated into a program to encourage those who move to Britain to become citizens, reducing practical barriers and doing more to celebrate when they do.

A lot of people want us to focus more on how we disagree. Yet those who wish to wage “culture wars” generally get more airtime than those who wish to defuse them. The division is part of the democratic political argument. The challenge for those in power is also to bridge our divisions.