Liz Truss was a hopeless, incompetent leader. But the temptation of a return to the discredited certainties of free-market dogma proved impossible for her party to resist.
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” the Queen tells Alice, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It feels like over the past six weeks Britain has been waking up to at least that—and then some. In just 44 days, the country lost a queen, a pound, economic credibility, a chancellor, a home secretary, a prime minister—and its political sanity. We don’t know what will happen next, now that Liz Truss has ended the shortest premiership in British history, but it will happen relatively quickly and is unlikely to be well thought-out.
Truss’s departure from Downing Street is, at one and the same time, both as implausible and inevitable as her entry. The very notion of selecting a prime minister one month only to get rid of them the next was, until earlier this week, unthinkable. It makes the party that put her there look fickle and incompetent, foments instability at a time of economic crisis, and sends public trust in politics plummeting. It is the kind of drastic action a party would take only if it were desperate.
But the Tories are desperate. As the days went on, it became clear that continuing with her at the helm was even more unthinkable. The shortest premiership was not the only record she broke. According to polls, she was the least popular prime minister ever, giving Labour the biggest lead of any party ever. Her disapproval ratings were close to Vladimir Putin’s. Her flagship economic policies had been ditched; her party was in open mutiny; the few allies she had were turning on her; and she was forced to appoint her rivals.
Three days before she resigned, one Tory MP, Grant Shapps, said that, in order to survive: “She needs to thread the eye of a needle with the lights off, it’s that difficult.” Two days later she had made him home secretary after one of her previous supporters resigned, trashing her premiership in the process. The only reason Truss lasted as long as she did is that the Queen’s death meant that for 10 of those 44 days the country was in official mourning and politics stood still.
The Tories got rid of her because a complete wipeout at the next election, which has to take place by January 2025, under her leadership started to feel like a certainty. If she could do this amount of damage in just a few weeks, imagine how bad things could get in a few years.
And so they decided they would rather risk laying bare their dysfunction as a party and demanding a do-over, in the hope that they could ride out the momentary discomfort and take advantage of short memories, an obsequious media, and an uninspired Labour leadership to restore their fortunes. That is a big risk for two main reasons.
First, there is no clear successor. The Conservative party is split between a number of poor options. Former chancellor Rishi Sunak, whom Truss defeated in July, has significant support in the party, but is not particularly popular beyond that and is almost as poor a performer as Truss. Many in the party also have not forgiven him for helping bring down Boris Johnson. Johnson, meanwhile, has reportedly cut short his holiday, apparently imagining himself swept back to power on a wave of regret and indulgence, to perform triage on the party he himself wounded. There is also Penny Mourdant, who came third in the poll of Tory MPs in July. Given that either the party or the membership rejected all three of these candidates less than four months ago, none are particularly appealing.
The second risk is that the prospect of being subjected to yet one more Tory psychodrama while the country is going through a cost-of-living crisis, double-digit inflation, spiraling energy bills, the threat of power blackouts over winter, and the escalating threat of nurses and lecturers’ joining railway workers and postal workers on strike, may just be too much for too many. The country needs running, and the Tories aren’t doing it because they are too busy running for the leadership of their own party.
The idea that Labour would call for a general election is hardly surprising; but if the clamor for a popular vote grows significantly beyond the party, the demand for it may become unstoppable. That won’t be an easy thing to pull off. For a general election to be called early, a motion to that effect would need at least two-thirds of the votes in Parliament, or the government would have to lose a no-confidence vote. Given the huge Tory majority, it is difficult to see why they would back their own demise.
But stranger things have happened lately. Indeed, they keep happening. Everything is in play, flux, and confusion.
The vote to leave the European Union certainly triggered this period of instability. In the six years since the Brexit referendum, we have burned through three prime ministers and are about to appoint our fourth; it took 37 years to get through four prime ministers prior to the referendum. It was Brexit that persuaded David Cameron, who called the referendum, to quit, made Theresa May’s position untenable and Johnson’s premiership possible, and boosted Tory fortunes in the 2019 election. With each twist experienced, competent and moderate Conservatives left and new, ineffectual, more extreme candidates replaced them. They are playing for high stakes with a shallow bench.
But Brexit is not the whole story—and not even, at this point, the primary one. The coronavirus forced a reckoning with what government is for. Sunak raised taxes; public-sector workers were the toast of the nation; most of the rail network was brought back into public ownership; people on furlough were paid from the public purse not to go to work.
There is no privatized response to a public health crisis that makes sense—and this wreaked havoc with free-market orthodoxies. (It also demanded that you cared about people whom you didn’t know and took personal responsibility to act in the public good, which was where the Johnson came unstuck with his lockdown parties).
Truss offered a return to a more comfortable ideological landscape that took no account of these developments, and she took the party with her. As such, she is the last person you can really blame for this mess.
True, she was a hopeless leader. But she never hid it. Truss was wooden in front of a microphone; even the speech she had been preparing all summer when she came into power, following her long-anticipated victory over Sunak, sounded not only stilted but also vacuous and disengaged. When she wasn’t blinking furiously, she offered 1,000-yard stares that made you wonder if she really knew where she was. Gaffe-prone from the outset, when her colleagues selected her as one of the final two to be presented to the Tory membership, she tweeted: “Thank you for putting your trust in me. I’m ready to hit the ground from day one.” The post was quickly deleted so that someone could insert the word “running.”
True, also, her policies were unworkable. But she never hid them either. In the small time she was in power, she did exactly what she said she would do. She ran on a platform of slashing taxes for the very rich at a time when nine in 10 Britons are delaying putting their heat on because energy bills are so high. She was as good as her word.
Many people at the time, including within her own party, said that would not work. But the Conservative Party membership voted for it and the Tory media embraced it. “Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Woman,” bellowed the Daily Mail (think Fox News on the newsstands); The Daily Telegraph declared her “competent and proficient.”
The fact that she could rise as far as she did, in the way that she did, tells you a great deal about the state of British democracy. What comes next will tell us even more.