Meanwhile, away from the Westminster whacky races and the feuding by Tory party leadership contenders, the situation grows more grave by the day. Across Europe, there are fears the hot spell could turn into the worst drought in centuries.
Worried officials are tracking water levels in Germany and Italy. The implications for food supply are obvious, ahead of an energy crisis this winter threatening to shutter industries and cause havoc. On the currency markets, the Euro and Sterling have taken a beating. Although Britain is still growing, there are recession fears. The backdrop is the brutal conflict that grinds on in Ukraine.
In this context, much of the leadership contest in Britain appears to be taking place in a parallel universe. Some of the candidates sound as though they are wired to the moon.
As the line-up of aspiring prime ministers illustrates, today’s Conservative party is not a milieu in which journalists are likely to employ the term “big beasts” promiscuously. In a sense, Boris Johnson was the last prominent Tory who merited the description – not in the context of high achievement (though the 2019 election, the vaccine roll-out and the leading role he seized for Britain in resisting Putin’s aggression were notable successes), but in sheer self-projection. What Boris lacked in character he compensated for, at his peak, in personality.
Historically, the Conservatives have had the lion’s share of the big beasts in British politics: Disraeli, Salisbury, Churchill and Margaret Thatcher are the most obvious examples. A couple of generations ago, a spirited debate involving Rab Butler, Iain Macleod et al. would have been of a calibre to expose their heirs today as Lilliputians.
The most striking characteristic of the Conservative party in those days was its fecundity of ideas, the facility with which speeches and pamphlets which struck the right balance between imaginative ideas and solid policy research flooded the political arena.
That is too often no longer the case today: original Tory thinking is rare so the party is as short of ideas as of personalities. This is a chicken-and-egg dilemma: mediocre politicians are unlikely to devise brilliant political strategies.
The latest round of voting, apart from eliminating Suella Braverman, did little to alter the pecking order. Front runner Rishi Sunak, with 101 votes, will be wishing he had pulled further ahead of Penny Mordaunt and closer to the 120 votes that would make him invulnerable. Mordaunt should be fairly pleased to have gained 16 additional votes and reached a total of 83.
There is danger for Liz Truss, whose 64-vote tally is further behind her two rivals than she would have wished, though she will be relieved to have secured the support of Suella Braverman and some, though not all, of the ERG, the hardline Brexiteer faction.
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That will dismay Kemi Badenoch, in fourth place with 49 votes, who would have hoped to win her endorsement. Instead, it seems Braverman is backing the foreign secretary in order to build an anti-Sunak/Mordaunt coalition. Such calculations are partly speculative, in that there is no obligation on the supporters of an eliminated candidate to switch their votes as the loser directs.
Things look unpromising for Tom Tugendhat, on 32, who actually shed votes, in the manner of a papal conclave, in Thursday’s ballot. He has fought a good campaign but could now withdraw. If he makes no progress over the weekend, it is not inconceivable he might retire before Monday’s round of voting.
For we have now reached a watershed. The televised debates in which the five surviving candidates are competing offer the possibility of a genuine game-changer. It is, of course, perfectly possible that all five candidates will be so terrified of making a fatal gaffe that they will play it too safe, to the point of reducing the conversation to banality throughout all the debates.
There remains the possibility of a dramatic breakthrough by one of the candidates – not necessarily one of the front runners – that could transform the election.
The candidate with the least to lose and the ideas to fire up debate is Kemi Badenoch. She has fought a highly impressive campaign and might gamble on an aggressive and principled performance – her views are more quintessentially Tory than some of her competitors – in an attempt to reshuffle the entire pack. The weekend media, too, will be investigating all five contenders in the hope of delivering an Andrea Leadsom-style disqualifying revelation.
In the case of the front runner, Rishi Sunak, it hardly seems necessary. Sunak’s pitch, as his critics perceive it, amounts to:
“Let me introduce myself. I am the millionaire who is raising your taxes and squeezing you to death with green energy charges; but, believe me, I understand your pain – that is why my billionaire wife preferred to pay lower taxes than you until recently. Until last October, and for more than a year of my term as chancellor of the exchequer, I held a Green Card, classifying me as an American resident, not inaccurately since I have a $5.5m house in California, the place I regard as home, but so do some members of the royal family, so that’s okay.”
That is the profile of the front runner for the Conservative leadership, which seems unlikely to pass muster with the party faithful, or with those in the Red Wall constituencies, especially next winter when Britons play the new form of Russian roulette: eat or heat. The growing crisis of energy costs is the issue all candidates are reluctant to discuss, but it is a certainty it will be the consuming political issue in the coming months.
Another candidate with questions to answer is Penny Mordaunt. Most damaging to her are the remarks made by Lord Frost of her performance as his deputy in Brexit negotiations: “I’m sorry to say this, she did not master the necessary detail in the negotiations last year. “ Touche.
Before more damage is done, Mordaunt needs to respond to Frost’s criticism of her competence. The country is watching.
On another front, Frost is being impertinent. He has called on Badenoch to leave the race, saying she and her supporters should get behind Truss, the candidate Frost is backing. Badenoch is an elected politician who only decided to run ten days ago. She has built a team and not put a foot wrong in the contest. For Frost to tell her to stand aside – as though she’s on work experience and it’s time for the grown ups to take over – is sheer cheek.
Truss has her vulnerabilities too, but they are already priced in by the market. It speaks volumes about the topsy-turvy nature of this leadership election that Truss, a Remainer, is now seen by some Brexiteers as the safest guarantor of Brexit.
The Tory right has not got its ducks in a row and could well bungle this election, to the prejudice of Brexit. That said, they may still have certain advantages. Some commentators expect a lot of Braverman votes, plus some Sunak defectors, to gravitate to Truss and give her the edge over Mordaunt. We’ll see.
Finally, there is the emerging need for the new prime minister’s base to be radically reformed. An ITV documentary has revealed (as if we didn’t know) a chaotic situation in Number 10 under Boris Johnson.
The accusations of “misogyny” sound a little strange, with the formidable Carrie Johnson presiding over the ménage and many women in senior positions. What is not in doubt is the chaos sowed by Dominic Cummings and the proliferation of semi-official advisers and hangers-on. Some of them in the shadows are now backing Sunak.
Regardless of who becomes prime minister, a priority must be to return to a coherent regime of orderly government. This is essential when the stakes are so high, on energy, the economy and war.
The outcome of this leadership contest, in terms of individuals, remains highly unpredictable. A large number of votes in the Tory parliamentary party may move around if someone shows themselves capable of rising to the level of events.
Perhaps it will be one of the insurgents who captures the imagination this weekend and remakes British politics. Goodness knows, someone needs to make the Tory party raise its game.