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PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC – OCTOBER 06: British Prime Minister Liz Truss attends the Meeting of the European Political Community in Prague, Czech Republic, on October 6, 2022. (Photo by Lukas Kabon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Truss is finished, but can still cause plenty of harm

Truss is finished, but can still cause plenty of harm

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC – OCTOBER 06: British Prime Minister Liz Truss attends the Meeting of the European Political Community in Prague, Czech Republic, on October 6, 2022. (Photo by Lukas Kabon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

It is a dangerous populist game to blame economic problems, inflation and poverty on particular groups of people. But this PM will try anything to cling to power

Can Liz Truss survive? Of course not. In fact, politically speaking, she is already dead. Though her remaining allies insist that, like the legendary parrot, she is merely pining for the fjords, it is perfectly clear that she has passed on, has ceased to be, has shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. She is, in all but title, an ex-prime minister.

Yes, of course, she remains in office. But only five weeks after she became Her Late Majesty the Queen’s 15th PM, her power has already drained away. On yesterday’s broadcasting round, Nadhim Zahawi claimed to be Truss’s “Chief Operating Officer”, which, after a disastrous Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, made him sound less like a dynamic corporate executive than a surgeon telling the family that he would “do his very best” for the patient.

Other than the formal trappings of incumbency, all that the PM has on her side at the moment is the epic indecision, dismay and stupefaction that has gripped her own party. It was embarrassingly clear in Birmingham that her colleagues know already that she is not up to it. No prime minister can survive both market hostility and consistently disastrous opinion polls, indicating that the Tories are between19 and 33 points behind Labour. But – having got rid of one prime minister only three months ago – senior Tories are struggling to see how they can possibly repeat the trick so quickly.

One former cabinet minister who spent the conference taking soundings about an instant putsch against Truss tells me that there is a “fatal mismatch” between his colleagues’ recognition of the problem – symbolised by, but not confined to the climbdown over the 45p rate of tax – and their sense of what to do about it. The same source says that discreet approaches have been made to Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, about the rule change that would be needed for a confidence vote in Truss before her first year as leader had elapsed – and that those approaches were rebuffed.

Still reeling from the protracted decline and fall of Boris Johnson – whose exit is resented by many, perhaps a majority of party members – the Conservative movement can scarcely believe that it has been plunged immediately into another leadership crisis. Though Tories love a bit of intrigue, this is political volatility of a quite different order, to which they have no remotely adequate collective response. 

To be fair, it is not hard to see why Brady is reluctant to change the rules. A governing party can survive many blows, many setbacks, many scandals. But looking utterly and totally ridiculous is not among them. The Conservatives have a working majority of 69 in the Commons – what remains of the 80-seat victory secured by Johnson in December 2019. 

As it is, Truss’s claim as heir to that parliamentary mandate is shaky at best, given that only 50 Tory MPs voted for her in the first round of the leadership contest. Were she too to be driven from office, her successor’s claim would be shakier still. The Conservatives would appear even more absurd than they already do (which is saying something). The pressure for an early general election would be very hard to resist; in which case, as George Osborne said on yesterday’s Andrew Neil Show “a Tory wipeout is potentially on the cards”.

Already, there is a damage limitation tendency in the party’s parliamentary ranks that sees defeat as more or less certain and believes that the agony should be got out the way sooner rather than later – on the grounds that the voters will be even angrier a year or 18 months from now, when they have experienced the full impact of the downturn, of inflation, of food insecurity, of rising mortgages and (almost certainly) significant public spending cuts.

Their opponents, the Tory Micawber Caucus, believe that “something will turn up”, and that it is worth playing what they rather feebly call “the long game”. I remember their forebears saying exactly the same thing about John Major’s electoral prospects in 1995. “Something will turn up,” they said, with a collective rubicund beam. And it did: Tony Blair’s landslide victory in May 1997.

Thus paralysed, the Conservative Party has identified the inevitable, but has not the slightest clue how to bow to it. What looks like (and is often reported as) ruthless plotting is mostly exhausted panic. In Birmingham last week, there were headless chickens looking on in disapproval: “Jesus – these guys have really got to get their act together.”

Most striking has been the complete collapse of collective cabinet responsibility: the very foundation stone of the governing system in this country. Last Tuesday, Suella Braverman, the home secretary, declared that her fellow MPs had “staged a coup”, forcing the PM and chancellor to scrap their plan to abolish the 45p tax rate – which was true, but also made Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng look desperately weak. As if to drive home the point that she was made of sterner stuff, Braverman added that she was “disappointed” by the U-turn.

Over to Kemi Badenoch, international trade secretary and the runaway favourite of Tory members to succeed Johnson, who quickly condemned her ambitious colleague’s intervention: “I don’t think we should be talking about coups. I think that sort of a language is just too inflammatory.” Braverman and Badenoch agree on many things. What they don’t agree about is which of them should be the next Conservative leader.

Meanwhile, Penny Mordaunt, Leader of the House of Commons, revealed that she supported “benefits keeping pace” with inflation – rather than earnings – thus pre-empting the most politically contentious decision presently in the PM’s in-tray.

Undeterred, Braverman was back at it, declaring that “we do need to leave” the European Convention on Human Rights – which is not yet government policy. She also broke sharply with her boss by reinstating the long-discarded goal to reduce the annual total of migrants to the UK to “tens of thousands”. And this was only the stuff in public. Many more briefings were being given to signal this or that cabinet minister’s disagreement with this or that aspect of Truss’s plans. In the end, the PM was pathetically reduced to claiming on Times Radio that “Cabinet ministers have to be able to talk publicly. And I’m a believer that we have these discussions where we agree a common position. Then we express those views.” 

This, as she knows perfectly well, is nonsense. The most senior ministers thrash out a common position in private and then stick to it in public. It is by this means that the cabinet remains, in Bagehot’s definition, the all-important institution of government – “a combining committee – a hyphen which joins, a buckle which fastens, the legislative part of the state to the executive part of the state.” Truss’s failure to impose discipline upon her ministerial colleagues has been conspicuous, and tells you all you need to know about the collapse of her authority (if it ever really existed).

As the House of Commons returns this week, that collapse will be even more apparent. So divided and mutinous are her MPs that she is, in effect, back where Theresa May and Johnson were in the period between the 2017 and 2019 elections: at the mercy of a hung parliament. Having seen that she can be forced to back down, her MPs will not hesitate to repeat the trick – and are piling on the pressure to ensure that she increases benefits in line with inflation (about 10 per cent last month) rather than earnings (around 5.5 percent). 

During the leadership contest, Truss made no secret of her opposition to “handouts”; and she and Kwarteng were famously co-authors of Britannia Unchained (2012) which declared the British “amongst the worst idlers in the world.” But Tory MPs were shaken over the weekend by research suggesting that poorer families will be, on average, £395 a year worse off if benefits are increased by the lower rate. “This is not bleeding heart liberalism,” according to one cabinet minister. “It’s pure politics. If we go ahead with the cheaper alternative, we may as well give the keys to Number 10 to Starmer now.”

The challenge for those trying to understand the Truss government is that there may not be much to understand. Posturing as a Thatcher for the digital age, she presented herself during the contest and last week in Birmingham as a leader ready to be unpopular, to “stay the course”, to do whatever it takes to “deliver”.

In her conference speech, she essentially declared the advent of Year Zero. Remarkably, she is the first Conservative prime minister in modern times not to thank her predecessor at her first conference as leader. In Blackpool in 1991, John Major declared that “we owe Margaret a great debt”; in 2016 in Birmingham, Theresa May paid tribute to “a great leader of our party – a great servant to our country. David Cameron, thank you”; three years later, in Manchester, Boris Johnson said: “I should begin by paying tribute to my predecessor. Theresa, I know the whole of conference remains full of gratitude to you.”

Such tributes may be no more than a formality, and sometimes seem a touch hypocritical, given the circumstances in which the previous prime minister has been dispatched. But they matter as a mark of tribal continuity and to signal the confidence and unthreatened authority of the new PM. Truss’s failure to say anything about Johnson made her look weak and haunted by his abiding presence in the party’s collective imagination.

Over the weekend, there was also an extraordinary briefing campaign against Michael Gove, denounced by an unnamed Number 10 aide as “sadistic” for publicly campaigning against the 45p tax rate. Again, one wonders who in Downing Street believes that such vindictive whispering does anything other than make the new PM look like that oddest of temperamental character types: a libertarian snowflake.

To confuse matters, Truss seems – at least temporarily – to have dropped the “no surrender” Thatcher tribute act with the promise of a glutinous charm offensive. And no ordinary charm offensive, either. According to today’s Times, this campaign to win over Tory MPs will be “unprecedented” – though quite by what measure remains unclear. The newspaper was briefed that the PM accepts the need to “engage more widely” – no longer conducting her strategy meetings in a phone box, presumably – and “to hold regular ‘policy lunches’ with groups of no more than 30 Tory MPs”. These are the emergency flowers, snatched from a garage forecourt late at night, with which her colleagues are being presented.

Whether Truss is acting tough or emollient, one thing is certain: she has embraced in full the populist playbook that her predecessor always kept in his jacket pocket. The most striking – and most idiotic – assertionin in her conference speech concerned the so-called “anti-growth coalition” that she claims is thwarting economic prosperity and improved productivity in this country.

It is sometimes claimed that identity politics and economic policy are unrelated but this is very far from the truth (for more on the intersection, try Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-Being by George A. Akerlof and Rachel E. Kranton). What Truss did in Birmingham was to graft the rhetoric of the Brexit referendum on to the question of economic strategy: explaining the problems facing UK plc not by policy analysis but by the attribution of blame.

To whom? Labour, the Lib Dems and SNP, of course; but also “the militant unions, the vested interests dressed up as think tanks. The talking heads, the Brexit deniers and Extinction Rebellion… They prefer talking on Twitter to taking tough decisions. They taxi from North London townhouses to the BBC studio to dismiss anyone challenging the status quo.”

Unintentionally comic in content as this may be, it has a sinister aspect. It is one thing to identify growth as the only thing that really matters; to single out tax cuts as the primary lever in generating recovery; to insist on public spending cuts. It is quite another to point the finger at those whom you claim are thwarting your policy objectives – before you have even set out those objectives in full.

This is not a path back to economic credibility or an inventory of practical solutions. It is the now-familiar populist ploy of governing by division and by vilification. The foes of the Johnson government were the “liberal elite”, civil servants, lawyers, judges, the “Blob”, the BBC, refugees in dinghies. Many of those will also be foes of the Truss administration. But to this list she has added her own little black book of supposed subversives. 

In 2016, the Daily Mail condemned the judges who had insisted that the government seek parliamentary approval for triggering Brexit as the “Enemies of the People”. Last Tuesday, in an unmistakable echo, Truss identified the so-called “enemies of enterprise” allegedly standing in the way of untold national riches. 

This is, to say the least, a dangerous game. To blame poverty, inflation, rising mortgages and job insecurity on particular groups of people is the stuff of shabby authoritarianism, not responsible democratic leadership. It is a desperate bid to cling to power by seeking to whip up public loathing of the chosen enemy: the “Two Minutes Hate” of which Orwell warned – aimed, in this case, and somewhat mysteriously, at those on their way to the BBC in taxis, rather than Emmanuel Goldstein.

I say mysteriously, because I have no confidence at all that this particular tactic will last. Indeed, will we ever be able to speak confidently of “Trussism”? Or will its short history be no more than a catalogue of “resets”, U-turns and arbitrary decisions? 

If you look at any government hard enough, even the very worst, there is usually some sort of method at work, however poorly executed. But the truth is that, beholding the Truss regime, already engulfed in flames, I feel, for the first time, like Captain Willard at Colonel Kurtz’s compound in Apocalypse Now. I don’t see any method at all.