All hail the dear leader

Liz elected to thunderous (if belated) applause from the loyal party faithful


There is a phenomenon of modern capitalism that is the opposite of the impulse purchase. It’s the long-considered terrible buy. We see an expensive product that looks very shiny. The reviews tell us, firmly, that we should not buy it because, in some crucial respect, it does not work. But over a period of weeks we persuade ourselves that, although this would be a deal-breaker for many people, it is not for us.

For us this longed-for and expensive product is just the thing. And one day we go for it. It does not work, of course, but we stick with it, explaining that a phone which does not allow us to answer calls is in many ways an advantage, because it stops us getting distracted. It will be months before we acknowledge to ourselves that, on balance, this was not the thing we hoped it might be.

It’s nice to see people happy

Which brings us to Liz Truss, selected by the Conservatives as this month’s prime minister. All summer long, the Tories had been persuading themselves that she is the iPhone 6, rather than the Nokia N97. She’s the heir to Boris Johnson, they’ve told themselves. Sure, she doesn’t have his way with words or his charisma, but that won’t be a problem for them, because they won’t be using those functions.

In their defence, this was a forced choice between two not very good options. As they gathered in a dark stuffy conference centre in central London, Tory MPs who had backed Rishi Sunak were telling each other that he was a much more gifted politician. This is an intriguing take on a man who was Chancellor of the Exchequer for two years before he decided that it would probably look better if his wife paid tax.

“We’re here for the first day of the destruction of the Conservative Party,” an activist told me, surprisingly cheerfully. I suggested that the first day had been some time ago, and he laughed heartily. It’s nice to see people happy.

Rows of seats had been reserved at the front of the hall for MPs, their names on each one. In places this had gone horribly wrong. Damian Green, a Sunak-ite, was next to Andrea Jenkyns, defender of Boris to the end, and now a backer of Truss. Green ignored her, his entire body turned away. It was the kind of seating plan moment that gives brides nightmares.

Sir Graham Brady came to give us the results. Sixteen percent of the electorate hadn’t voted. That sounds big, but there’s a lot we don’t know about the Tory membership, and it’s possible that some of the people who didn’t return their ballots had excellent excuses, like having died a decade ago.

To the surprise of no one, Sir Graham told us Truss had won. She gave a small smile that grew into a satisfied one as her team cheered, and made her way onto the stage. This was supposed to be a speech to the party, rather than the country, but the country was watching.  She thanked, briefly, everyone, including Sunak.

“I also want to thank our outgoing leader, my friend Boris Johnson.” She listed his achievements in just 20 words, and somehow it still seemed like a generous take. She looked down the camera lens. “You are admired,” she told him, “from Kiev to Carlisle.”

It would probably all be OK

She paused, and we all tried to process that comment. Kiev fair enough, but why Carlisle? There are other places in Britain that begin with a hard C, and a couple that begin with a K. Was there a specific point about choosing somewhere just south of the Scottish border, because they all hate him on the other side? Are the folk of Carlisle especially Boris-admiring? Wouldn’t Kendall have worked better? Was Coleraine rejected because it would be ridiculous to assert that Johnson is popular in Northern Ireland?

As we pondered this, Truss stood waiting for a response, before someone, very probably the speechwriter, began clapping, and it suddenly dawned on the audience that this was the line that was supposed to have them cheering on their feet.

Watching the recording back, the silence into which this line fell lasted two seconds, but at the time it felt like an ice age. Truss herself visibly got around 500 years older in the time it took for them to begin a brief round of polite applause.

She never really got past that moment. There was perfunctory applause when she told them they were “the greatest political party on earth”, and that she would deliver on the manifesto, and that she would deliver tax cuts and help with energy bills. There was confused applause when she told them “I will deliver on the NHS”.

It was barely a five-minute speech, but it was quite long enough. “We will deliver, we will deliver, we will deliver,” she intoned at the end, and they decided, on balance, that they had better clap this as well.

She promised to win the election, and they realised she’d finished, and heaved themselves to their feet. She was the one that they’d decided they wanted, and it would probably all be OK.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover