A “battle of ideas” is how the run-off between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss was expressed to me on Wednesday after MPs made their choice.
And it’s true that this contest will be about two very competing economic visions – Mr Sunak’s insistence to stick the course he’s set and cut taxes once inflation’s under control, as opposed to Ms Truss who wants to radically cut taxes later this year.
But in this battle, the risk is that the two candidates trash the party and the government even further as they slug it out. You only had to look at Prime Minister’s Questions and the Labour attack video on social media to see the damage being done.
Politics Hub: Truss v Sunak could get ‘quite unpleasant’
Ms Truss, Mr Sunak, Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch have written the script for Sir Keir Starmer in recent days.
Mr Sunak has accused Ms Truss of “fantasy economics” and “socialist” plans to borrow to fund tax cuts. She in turn has criticised Mr Sunak’s delivery of the “highest tax economy in past 70 years”, and told him his policies are pushing the UK into recession.
The denouncement of their record in government has been a thing to behold. “Why should the public trust us? We haven’t exactly covered ourselves in glory,” said Ms Bademoch to the delight of Labour.
David Davis, former cabinet minister and Mordaunt backer, told me after the results came in that the blue-on-blue battles need to stop, arguing grassroots’ members won’t appreciate it and it will work against any candidate that perpetuates it.
What is also true is how bitterly divided the party has become, with all three candidates getting more than 100 votes, splitting it in three. Had just five more MPs moved to Ms Mordaunt’s column, the trade minister would have edged past Ms Truss.
As it is, a chunk of Ms Mordaunt’s vote might have been lent from Mr Sunak as some MPs mounted a “stop Liz” campaign. As one senior party figure put it to me on Wednesday: “It’s anyone but Liz. She’s the continuity Johnson candidate without the charm.”
But now she’s made it to the final two, is she stoppable?
Ms Truss leads Mr Sunak with party members. She is also a candidate that didn’t knife Boris Johnson, which will count for something with many of the 200,000 party members who will decide this race.
She’s also a tax cutter, something the grassroots will also like. Her pitch will be: “I may not be as slick as Sunak but I am a true Tory and I will cut your taxes.”
Mr Sunak’s team thinks their candidate will, over the course of the next six weeks, win over party members by being the most credible candidate to appeal to a broader electorate.
“He will definitely stand out to members and will be make it clear that he is the one that looks like the election winner,” they say.
But the attack on Ms Truss is clear, and was given a run-out in the ITV candidates’ debate – Ms Truss is a Remainer who was once a Lib Dem.
Mr Sunak will also no doubt announce plans for tax cut once inflation – set to peak later this year – is back under control.
And what about the dirty tricks too? Westminster is awash with rumours of scandals and secret dossiers that might be leaked in an attempt to torpedo one of the candidates.
There is also the inquiry into an alleged leak designed to undermine Ms Mordaunt’s campaign being run, after a complaint over the release of internal government communications relating to her position on the fraught issue of trans rights. Either of the final two candidates’ teams being found responsible could be very damaging.
Ms Truss has the edge now but it’s still unclear who will win out in the end. What is clearer is that this battle will be all out war, and whoever wins will have a big task on their hands in making this party governable once more.
But the biggest question of all will be whether Mr Sunak or Ms Truss can deliver the sort of Conservative majority Mr Johnson did in 2019.
As one of his more ardent supporters put it to me the other day: “They’ve killed the golden goose.”
In six weeks we will have a new prime minister. But beyond that, everything is now in play.