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LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 14: New UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt walks from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office on October 14, 2022 in London, England. Former Health and Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is made Chancellor of the Exchequer by PM Liz Truss after she sacked Kwasi Kwarteng from the role. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Truss’s premiership is a feature, not a bug

Truss’s premiership is a feature, not a bug

LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 14: New UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt walks from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office on October 14, 2022 in London, England. Former Health and Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is made Chancellor of the Exchequer by PM Liz Truss after she sacked Kwasi Kwarteng from the role. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Jeremy Hunt’s command of this disastrous government is welcome. But it will take more than one political grown-up to save the Conservative Party

“Well, then. How do we get out of this pickle?” Early 2019, and I am having a cup of coffee with Jeremy Hunt in the then Foreign Secretary’s cavernous office, one of the most beautiful rooms in Whitehall.  Theresa May’s government cannot get Brexit through Parliament, thanks to her loss of the Conservative majority in the 2017 general election, and Hunt reflects on the challenge – thus far intractable – of assembling a Commons majority for any of the legislative options on offer for the UK’s departure from the European Union. 

And now? Well, three and a half years and two failed leadership bids later, Hunt is back in one of the great offices of state as Chancellor of the Exchequer, serving a prime minister whose pitiful position, only 41 days since she entered Number Ten, makes May’s relatively brief premiership look like a triumph of grip, strategic control and charismatic panache.

He also has another “pickle” on his hands, and this one is quite something: perhaps the toughest constellation of problems to face a senior Conservative in office since Margaret Thatcher in 1979 (and she was prime minister, not chancellor). In two weeks’ time, he will present his Medium Term Fiscal Plan, in which we can expect tax rises and “efficiency gains” that will amount, in real terms, to public spending cuts. 

But he knows that the markets will need to be reassured well before 31 October, which is why he decided over the weekend that he would make a preliminary statement today foreshadowing some of its key elements. As it is, the sacking of Kwasi Kwarteng on Friday, Hunt’s elevation and Liz Truss’ disastrous press conference did not persuade the invisible hand to unclench the fist that is presently aimed at UK plc. More is needed, and fast.

Consider this, too: on Saturday, Joe Biden casually trashed Britain’s economic strategy while visiting an ice cream shop in Oregon, making clear that he was speaking for many others on the geo-political stage. “I wasn’t the only one that thought it was a mistake,” he said of the Truss-Kwarteng mini-Budget. “I think that the idea of cutting taxes on the super wealthy at a time when – anyway, I just think – I disagreed with the policy”.

Can you imagine any US president in the recent past so publicly humiliating the government of the fellow-G7 nation with which his own – at least in theory – enjoys a “special relationship”? Bill Clinton never forgave John Major for Conservative gumshoes digging into his Oxford University past in search of dirt during the 1992 presidential election. But it would never have occurred to Clinton to say something so offhand about the many predicaments that afflicted the then Prime Minister. Biden’s cruelly nonchalant remarks were a banana split of ill-concealed contempt laced with indifference.

The second killer ingredient of Hunt’s new pickle is a matter of raw electoral politics. In their 38-day partnership as prime minister and chancellor, Truss and Kwarteng failed disastrously to persuade the voters that they were even remotely up to the job. True, public awareness of their £100 billion energy plan was swept away by the death of Her Late Majesty the Queen and the period of mourning that followed. 

But the mini-Budget on 23 Budget was ostentatiously framed as a swashbuckling act of ideological triumphalism that marked a break with what Truss called the “drift and delay” of the past; an overturning of “Treasury orthodoxy”; disregard for the Office for Budget Responsibility; and – most extraordinary of all – an explicit claim that the British preoccupation with “redistribution” and “handouts” had become a barrier to economic growth. 

All of which had led the gruesome twosome to conclude that the cap on bankers’ bonuses should be lifted, and the 45p income rate tax abolished; in contrast, benefits might be upgraded only in line with earnings rather than inflation, a measure that would have consigned hundreds of thousands of families to outright indigence. To disagree with this new libertarian creed was to identify oneself as a member of the “anti-growth coalition” or an “enemy of enterprise”. 

No less than the markets, the public quickly saw this for the zealous, arrogant nonsense that it was, and one of the first significant data points of Truss’ premiership was the 33-point opinion lead that she had helped Labour to achieve by 29 September. 

The partygate scandal was, as I have written before, part of an “ethical crash” that nurtured fierce public anger over the Johnson government’s flagrant hypocrisy during the pandemic. But this is much, much worse. The present crisis is of a wholly different order. This time, the voters are facing the real-life, real-time consequences of a desperate economic context: bills, jobs, mortgages, food on the table, heating the home, paying for the children’s clothes. While Truss and Kwarteng were enjoying their Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek cosplay, these were the anxieties that were keeping the public awake at night. They keep them awake still. 

In response, Hunt is simply acting as if none of this really happened; or – if it did – that it was a moment of madness by the government, and one that, now that his writ runs throughout government, he will personally ensure is rectified. As he spelt out to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg yesterday: “The one thing I want to reassure families who are worried at home is that our priority, the lens through which we’re going to do this, is a compassionate Conservative government, and top of our mind when we’re making these decisions will be struggling families, struggling businesses, the most vulnerable people, and we’ll be doing everything we can to protect them.”

All of which was to say: we would like to apologise for the inconvenience of the past three weeks – normal One Nation Tory service will now resume on your screens. In this instance, of course, normal service is going to involve some pretty tough medicine; or, to use the familiar euphemism that Hunt deployed repeatedly over the weekend, “difficult decisions”. 

Because a second era of deep austerity is politically unsustainable, his fiscal strategy will have to involve significant tax rises: the absolute, diametric opposite of what Truss and Kwarteng insisted they were going to achieve. Though the Chancellor politely goes along with the face-saving notion that the PM’s “mission” is intact, the mini-budget that she and his predecessor drew up as their blueprint for a national reset is now a dead letter. As one Cabinet source put it to me: “It’s a completely redundant document, not even worth putting on eBay.”

The prize, as Hunt sees it, is the swift retrieval of economic stability; and, by extension, at least a chance that the Conservative Party will recover some of its shredded reputation for economic credibility. The last time this happened – Black Wednesday in 1992 – that process of recovery took no less than 16 years. The Chancellor must hope fervently that a fast and unambiguous restoration of fiscal sanity does the job more quickly this time.

The third and most toxic element of Hunt’s new pickle is that credibility and absurdity cannot coexist. When he told Kuenssberg yesterday that “the Prime Minister is in charge,” it was hard not to be reminded of the famous statement during the 1983 election campaign by Jim Mortimer, Labour general secretary, that “the unanimous view of the campaign committee is that Michael Foot is the leader of the Labour Party and speaks for the Party”. If it is necessary to assert the authority of a leader, that authority is axiomatically in question. 

Again, Hunt doubtless meant well when he said that Truss had been “under extraordinary pressure”. But prime ministers don’t get sympathy for the pressure to which they are subject, especially if they are responsible for most of it. That’s the job. That’s what they signed up for.

At the time of writing, three Conservative MPs – Crispin Blunt, Andrew Bridgen and Jamie Wallis – have publicly called for Truss to go. Others will follow, if only because it is so hard to explain why she should stay. The 71-seat working majority that keeps her in office is what remains of the 2019 election victory won by Boris Johnson, on a manifesto that she was seeking to unpick. Her own agenda has been dumped. Her authority is non-existent. She sacked Kwarteng for doing exactly what she agreed with him, line by line. Why, if he is gone, does she remain?

At her press conference on Friday, she looked spectral, stunned; as though, from the lectern, she could see the political Grim Reaper lurking in the wings. This was a moment for straightforward, robust contrition; or, more perilously, for to-hell-with-it political theatre along the lines of Harold Wilson in May 1969: “Let me say, for the benefit of those who have allowed themselves to be carried away by the gossip of the past few days, I know what is going on. I am going on.” 

Instead, we had a baffled character from a Tennessee Williams play, drifting onto stage for eight minutes and then drifting off. It looked like a moment of complete political collapse. This week, her government lies in state in Downing Street, with a conspicuous absence of mourners queuing to pay their respects.

It is hard to find a precedent for this ridiculous and dangerous moment. The closest, I think, is the last phase of Anthony Eden’s premiership in which, his nerves destroyed by the Suez crisis, the prime minister was often entirely absent from the fray due to illness (convalescing in Jamaica for three weeks, for instance). 

The inevitable consequence was raging political confusion and jockeying for position. Harold Macmillan, the Chancellor the Exchequer, assured his American allies that he was “Eden’s deputy”, while Rab Butler, the leader of the House of Commons, also presented himself as “acting head of government”. Such uncertainty was self-evidently unsustainable then (Macmillan succeeded Eden in January 1957); and it is unsustainable today.

The recognition within the Conservative parliamentary party that Truss is not up to the job is now overwhelming; even amongst some of the 50 MPs who voted for her in the first round of the contest on 13 July. I cannot see that contagion of dismay receding, however effectively Hunt labours at the coalface of market and public opinion. The question, then, is what to do next.

All the blithe talk of a “dream ticket” or a “unity candidate” is detached from reality. Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt acting in concert would indeed be a considerable improvement upon the status quo – though Mordaunt would have to overcome her justified anger at the venom with which the Sunak campaign briefed against her during the contest to succeed Johnson. 

Hunt himself, having occupied two of the great offices of state and survived as the longest-serving health secretary for six years, would certainly be an able and assured prime minister. But would Suella Braverman (for instance) accept his accession to the top job by acclamation? The Home Secretary was, after all, the undoubted star of the Conservative conference in Birmingham; admits that her “dream” is to watch planeloads of refugees flying off to Rwanda; and seems on the point of announcing a shoot-to-kill policy for police officers who apprehend vegans spilling milk in retail outlets. 

This is what today’s Tory rank-and-file seems to like: why should she make way for Hunt, or indeed for Sunak and Mordaunt? And why should Kemi Badenoch, who was the Tory members’ first choice to succeed Johnson, accept what she and her many grass-roots supporters would undoubtedly see as an old-school “magic circle” stitch-up?

In the event of Truss’ snap departure, the best the party can hope for, I suspect, is a fast and furious parliamentary contest, rigorously confined to a week or so, with an agreement by the 1922 committee, party board and convention that, in this moment of political and economic emergency, there will not be vote by members: the MPs alone must decide. 

What is certain is that another seven-week festival of national campaigning and tribal introspection is unthinkable only six weeks after the last one ended. The members – who are, after all, the ones who elected Truss in the first place – will just have to accept this; if, that is, they value their party’s future electoral viability at all.

This is the least worst option available today. But what most Conservatives are still far from confronting is the following ugly truth: the disaster of the Truss premiership is a feature, not a bug. It is an entirely logical consequence of the culture that has gripped the party since it embraced Brexitism and populism; since it became reckless with rules, hostile towards institutions and obsessed with the attribution of blame (in yesterday’s Sun, Truss was still banging on about “the anti-growth coalition”); since it decided that permanent political conflict was more important than policy delivery. She was never going to be the remedy for Johnson’s failures; she is, instead, the new variant of the political virus that he personified.

The return of Hunt to top table is welcome indeed. There is, at last, a grown-up back at the apex of power, and that’s worth celebrating. But it will take more than one adult to repair the damage that has been wrought by this gang of politically feral children; who have wrecked all that they have touched, at a price that the rest of us will continue to pay for years to come.