The career of Liz Truss up to 6 September 2022 was a demonstration of the power of determination. She had won the leadership of the Conservative Party by a respectable margin that summer, 57 per cent of the votes to Rishi Sunak’s 43 per cent. That only represented the endorsement of 81,000 party members. To put that into perspective, Matt Hancock, the village idiot of the Covid-19 pandemic, received more than 560,000 to come third in I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here later in the year.
We all remember the trauma of her short premiership
Truss was elected because she promised optimism, but it was based on clear ideological lines. In September 2012, Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity, a collection of essays by five new MPs from the Free Enterprise Group, was published by Palgrave Macmillan. Along with Truss, they were Kwasi Kwarteng, Chris Skidmore, Dominic Raab and Priti Patel. It was a short book, only six chapters, and it drew lessons from around the world to prescribe a programme of free markets, low taxation, deregulation, and individual liberty to revitalise Britain’s economy and national spirit.
Liz of the Forty-Nine Days is not naturally an intellectual. She read PPE at Merton College, Oxford, but has never disclosed her degree classification. One of her tutors, Professor Marc Stears, then a young doctoral student, described her as “creative and self-consciously unconventional”, but dominated by “a capacity to shift, unblinkingly, from one fiercely held belief to another”. When she ran for the party leadership, she promised lower taxes, a smaller state and an embrace of free enterprise, citing Ronald Reagan and Nigel Lawson as her ideological touchstones.
We all remember the trauma of her short premiership, the seeds of its destruction sown when the chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, presented the government’s Growth Plan to the House of Commons. It cut the basic rate of income tax and abolished the top rate; scrapped plans to raise corporation tax and National Insurance; promised a two-year freeze on energy bills, tax relief for investors and the doubling of employee share options; and set out plans for investment zones and liberalised planning regulations. The markets reacted with panic, sterling dropped rapidly to a record low against the dollar, and the Bank of England was forced to buy UK government bonds on a temporary basis.
The sands were running out. Parts of the Growth Plan began to be unpicked, Kwarteng was sacked on 14 October, and six days later Truss announced that she would resign. It was an ignominious end, the shortest tenure of any prime minister in history by some way, and her departure opened the way for the fifth PM in seven years. Britain was starting to look like Italy. For a few months, Truss’s abject failure seemed to have discredited supply-side economics. Long-time economics editor of The Observer, William Keegan, dismissed it as a “misunderstanding of Thatcherism”, as if it confirmed, as many had feared, that Truss was merely a shoddy imitation of the Iron Lady.
Events come at you fast. There is now a strategy to rehabilitate Truss’s period of office, the thesis being that she was undermined, betrayed, by “Treasury orthodoxy” and what she described as the “anti-growth coalition”. She will not go down without a fight: in May she visited Taiwan and gave a punchy speech in which she described the island state as being “on the frontline of the global battle for freedom” and proposed the formation of a “network of liberty”, a kind of “economic NATO” to promote and defend free-market economics and individual freedom. Next April she will publish an apologia-cum-manifesto entitled Ten Years to Save the West: Lessons from the only Conservative in the room.
Truss pinpointed one of Britain’s greatest weaknesses — poor productivity
Full disclosure: I don’t think Truss was entirely wrong. I’m a free-marketeer and a monetarist: I think income should be retained as far as possible by those who earn it, to fructify in the pockets of the people, as Gladstone put it. I think we expect government to do too much and overlook the fact that the state is usually the least efficient, but sometimes the only, way of delivering services. Perhaps most importantly, Truss focused on growth. She pinpointed one of Britain’s greatest weaknesses — the economy’s historically poor productivity. Not only has it slowed dramatically since the financial crisis of 2007–08, but it has lagged behind the US and our European competitors since 1945. Bluntly, our economy is not growing enough.
Of course Truss and Kwarteng, co-authors and close friends, made mistakes. The determination not to consult the Office for Budget Responsibility was foolish, but it stemmed from a wider feeling that the OBR was part of the “establishment” against which the prime minister had to kick. Mostly, however, the different ideas did not fit together. Tax cuts were good, but to fund them through borrowing bordered on insanity. Abolishing the top rate of income tax created a headline that the burden would be reduced on those who least needed it. It mixed with the removal of the cap on bankers’ bonuses to create a presentationally toxic stew.
The bare bones of “Trussism”, the principles rather than the implementation, have a resonance with Conservatives that should be heard. The party ought to be fundamentally concerned with freedom and opportunity, creating a society in which people can rise as far as their talents can take them. Low taxation contributes to that, giving citizens as much choice as possible over how to spend their income. However, if that is the direction the party wants to take, it must do so without Liz Truss.
Clearly, Truss still has ambition, hardly an unforgivable sin amongst politicians. She will have to concede to reality. The qualities which propelled her to the leadership, such as they were, are overwhelmingly outweighed by a damaging combination of her disastrous public image and the very real shortcomings which she possesses. She is a poor communicator and a poor public speaker, awkward and lacking spontaneity. Her conduct in office in hindsight makes her determination look like mulish obstinacy. Essentially, the electorate is unlikely to regard her as plausible.
The Conservative Party is undergoing an identity crisis. Truss’ victory demonstrated that there is a substantial appetite for a full-blooded neo-Thatcherite revolution, but over the past decade the party has also embraced a gallimaufry of instincts, from extreme social conservatism to state intervention in the economy, not only on a massive scale but as a first instinct. I see no electoral future either in an overreaching, overstretched, rickety state apparatus, or in the Kinder Küche Kirche programme of the New Conservatives and National Conservatism.
That does not mean that a free-market, low-tax, lean and agile economy is the inevitable future of Conservatism. If it is to compete, however, it cannot be a discredited but self-assured ex-leader who acts as a champion. It will require three qualities, the combination of all of which in abundance is rare: they must be intellectually rigorous, wholly immersed in ideas and able to go toe-to-toe with financiers and economists; they must be practical, seeing as Thatcher did the connection between abstract theory and voters’ everyday lives (what the Americans would call “pocketbook politics’”; and they must be human and empathetic, someone to whom voters instinctively warm.
It may be that the next standard bearer is not yet in the House of Commons. Nevertheless, it is a philosophical strand which will only flourish if the party can decouple Truss from Trussism.
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