Politics

Liz Truss: an obituary

Margaret Thatcher was prime minister for 4,226 days. Liz Truss managed just 49. It was one of the many ways in which Truss failed to live up to the achievements of her role model.

That’s unfair, of course. Thatcher set an almost impossibly high bar that none of her successors has come close to matching. But it was Truss herself, with those silly photo-opportunities, who invited the comparisons, and anyway her premiership was a rank failure by pretty much any standards you care to name. The one positive thing that can be said is that she inflicted no long-term, structural disaster or calamity on the country, if only by virtue of being in office for such a very, very short time.

Two things happened on her watch. First, the Queen died. There was an opportunity here. Truss was still a largely unknown quantity for much of the country, and a strong presence, speaking for the nation, would have done her a great deal of good.

Unfortunately, that kind of performance requires precisely the attributes that Truss lacks. It’s a role for an actor – Tony Blair – or an established character: Boris Johnson. Not for the stage-shy class swot. Truss’s speech in Downing Street was very poor, and she was overshadowed in the Commons by Johnson. We shall draw a veil over the reading at the funeral.

Meanwhile Penny Mordaunt was being applauded for presiding over the Accession Ceremony with weight and authority. She was there in her ceremonial function as Lord President of the Council. Her day job was as leader of the House, a waste of one of the better communicators on the front bench.

And that illustrated how little Truss had learned from her revered predecessor. Thatcher’s first cabinet contained just two people who’d voted for her against Edward Heath (the odd couple of Keith Joseph and Norman St John-Stevas). Truss’s, on the other hand, was stuffed full of her supporters. Balance is important for party management, but it also matters to the electorate, who would like to believe that talent is being rewarded, not just loyalty.


And then there was the minibudget. Like Thatcher, Truss declared, she wasn’t afraid of being unpopular, and she sent Kwasi Kwarteng out to play the part of Geoffrey Howe in June 1979. As then, this was to be a radical, tax-cutting budget that would start a transformation of the economy.

The problem with this was that it was politically inept. Howe’s most controversial budget came at the start of an electoral cycle rather than halfway through. And even then it hadn’t just been about cutting taxes. Income tax came down from 33 to 30 per cent, and the top rate dropped from 83 to 60 per cent, but every other charge went up, most notably VAT, which nearly doubled, from 8 to 15 per cent. Kwarteng, though, didn’t get round to explaining where he was going to source the funds. That wasn’t Thatcherism, so much as a warped sub-Reagonomics, and the absence of any explanation ensured the market chaos that ensued.

So that was that. Truss’s polling plummeted to the psephological equivalent of absolute zero, and the men in grey suits turned up with their traditional gifts of a bottle of whisky and a revolver.

What lessons can we learn from this sorry little story before, driven by decency and embarrassment, we all try to pretend that it never happened?

The big issue remains the democratic absurdity of letting party members choose the prime minister. It’s bad enough in opposition, as the cases of Iain Duncan Smith, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn demonstrated, but there is no justification whatsoever when a party is in office. Parties are obviously entitled to select their leaders in whatever way they see fit, but not the prime minister.

Because being in power brings different responsibilities. The Labour Party used to know this. There was a time when Labour MPs used to have annual elections for membership of the shadow cabinet, but that didn’t apply when they were in government: the composition of the cabinet was then up to the prime minister.

The coronation of Rishi Sunak as Truss’s successor, by contrast, was an impressive piece of business. Someone entirely unsuitable had been made prime minister, so she was swiftly replaced with the minimum of fuss. The constitution demands that a prime minister has the confidence of parliament, and the constitution has now been fulfilled.

From a Conservative perspective, it’s certainly too late for the next election, of course. The Tories are guaranteed to lose, because the one thing the electorate will not accept is a party that doesn’t seem to be serious about being in government. This year the Conservative Party has not looked serious, and – even if Sunak proves to be a competent leader, an event for which we as yet have no evidence – it will take a long time for that image to fade. But an incoming Labour government is likely to struggle badly, with an economy still in the doldrums, and there may be a chance for the Tories the time after next.

The other conclusion we might draw is more personal, but still pertinent. Liz Truss looked weird. Her public persona was just odd, like an exaggerated version of Ed Miliband (though to be fair he could probably make a better fist of curtseying). There’s a reason why the Good Lord gave us think-tanks: those poor souls need somewhere to go. Westminster commentators don’t always notice how very strange much of modern politics has become. But the public know, and they were never going to take to Liz Truss. For her sake – let alone that of the country – it’s as well that it’s all over. Even a humiliation fetishist wouldn’t have envied her, these last couple of weeks.


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