We will soon know the result of the Conservative Party leadership election and the identity of our next Prime Minister. All the indications at the moment are that, despite some apparent hiccups in her campaign, Liz Truss will be the winner: the most recent YouGov poll of Conservative members still had her well ahead of Rishi Sunak. 

We should probably not take the result for granted at this stage, but unless something dramatic happens soon it does not look as if the result is going to be close. At least that will ensure that it’s unlikely to be affected by the postal strikes. After the Liberal Democrat leadership election in 2007, there were press reports that Chris Huhne would have beaten Nick Clegg if only hundreds of his votes had not been delayed in the Christmas post.

Conservative members voting in the election will presumably be choosing between Truss and Sunak on the basis of two, or maybe three, criteria. They probably have an impression of the character and ability of the two candidates and that will have some influence, perhaps – Sunak is probably suffering from the hostility of Boris Johnson loyalists who blame him for forcing the resignation of the incumbent (who those same members, of course, voted in as leader barely three years ago). 

But much more relevant to most will be two overlapping considerations. What policies do they want the new PM to pursue? And which candidate is most likely to achieve a general election victory next time around? 

Of course, the policies of the government will have a big effect on its chances of being re-elected, so these questions are linked; and, no doubt, some members will face the dilemma that they think that the policies they want the government to pursue will be unpopular.

Which issues matter most to voters?

It is tempting but probably very misleading to look at the current poll ratings of the two candidates as a sign of how acceptable they will be to voters. Our August Issues Index shows that inflation/prices and the economy more generally are easily the issues of most concern to the public at the moment, followed by climate change. Similarly, the cost of living is the issue most members of the public think the leadership candidates should be talking about. Public services, poverty and climate change come next, although if you look only at those who voted Conservative in 2019, immigration and border security just outstrips these three. 

It is a finely balanced point whether the Tories would be wisest to try to recreate the support they had last time or to widen their appeal and try to cope with lost support by finding votes elsewhere, but either way it is solving the cost-of-living crisis and strengthening the economy which has to be the number one priority. 

Many more people currently trust Labour more than the Conservatives to reduce their cost of living (45% compared to 30% having at least a fair amount of trust), and Keir Starmer outperforms both leadership candidates on the same measure. But, for what it is worth, Rishi Sunak is trusted by significantly more voters (42%) than Liz Truss (35%) to manage the cost of living crisis.

What action do they want on energy prices?

Our polling in the second half of August found that measures to deal directly with rising energy prices are currently viewed most widely as the best ways to help people in Britain cope with the rising cost of living. More than half picked freezing the energy price cap (65%) and cutting VAT on energy bills (57%) as among the best measures on offer, while half (50%) chose funding support for bill payers from a windfall tax on energy companies. These were much more popular than more general measures such as cutting income tax (29%), cutting government spending to reduce inflation (28%) or reversing recent National Insurance increases (28%). 

But will that stay true? The public can judge the immediate benefits of most of these policies well enough, but they may be far less aware of the disadvantages and costs. And can we even be sure that it will still be energy prices and not, say, food prices or petrol prices, that everybody is most worried about in six months’ time?

Who is most trusted to deliver?

Voters will not judge the future performance of the new PM on what they think of him or her now, or what policies they have promised. Delivery is key. Or, rather, perceived delivery. When the election comes around, will the voters think the new PM is doing a good job or not? How well off will they feel, after a year or two of the economy being run on a different course?

Which is why we need to be cautious in interpreting polls that measure the public’s reactions to policy proposals, interesting as they are. In the end, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. How many voters will the policy help in practice? And how many businesses on which those voters depend?

Truss and Sunak both believe that high government spending on short term measures to alleviate the cost-of-living crisis will do longer-term damage to the economy, although Sunak is more sympathetic to taking some measures than is Truss. Neither, for example, have currently committed to freezing the price cap – which the Labour Party supports – believing that it would cost so much that it would do more harm than good. 

And yet, the public popularity of freezing the price cap may be significant precisely because it is (probably) not going to happen. Voters will never have to suffer the disadvantages of meeting the cost of the policy, but may continue to resent being denied the apparent advantages. If the public is still feeling the pinch by the time of the next general election (and they surely will be, whatever measures the government takes), it might seem a strong argument for voting Labour. 

Why character and capability trump policy promises

For the Conservative members choosing between Sunak and Truss as most likely to lead the party to another election victory, this offers no simple answers. They differ over the short-term measures to deal with the immediate economic crisis, but the effect of that will surely have worn off long before the election. They also differ over the best long-term strategy for the economy, but even if those strategies succeed, they are unlikely to have borne much fruit as soon as the next election. 

The members may, after all, be better advised to rely on judging the character and ability of the two candidates – how they will deal with the unexpected may be more relevant to their success as leader than how they are dealing with the questions that have already been raised.

Kelly Beaver is the CEO of Ipsos UK