Theatre of the absurd
Sir Graham Brady (Chairman of the 1922 committee of backbenchers) is a man who always looks delighted to get media attention. He wore a broad grin as he brought the Conservatives’ triennial beauty pageant – six weeks of sniping, fantasy and occasional performative bigotry – to an end in a crescendo of self-congratulation when he unveiled Liz Truss as the party’s new leader.
His grin might have been one of relief that it was all over, but it suggested the British people should consider themselves fortunate to be having yet another inadequate PM foisted on them. For the rest of us, the applause within the auditorium did not drown out the sound of businesses already shuttering amid an energy crisis almost completely ignored during the campaign…
Truss comes to office amid a pile-up of crises so vast that merely enumerating them might exhaust the reader’s patience. She is an unimpressive politician anointed during unpromising times. Accordingly, public expectations of her – rightfully low beforehand – are already digging their way through the floor of the pollsters’ offices. These gut instincts shouldn’t be underestimated.
The Truss administration will mark the death rattle of the current Tory party. It is now performing in the Theatre of the Absurd.
The Tories no longer listen to anyone other than themselves
While backbenchers may have had enough strategic smarts to move against Johnson and take their chances, the cabal at the centre of the Conservative government is high on its own supply. Buoyed by a narrow win for leave in the 2016 referendum, by years of Johnsonian boosterism and the substantial victory in 2019, they have bought into the same myth of invulnerability that leads successful sports teams to the complacent belief that they can stop learning from others.
Theirs is a kind of hubris, bolstered by the constant feeding of far-right libertarians like the ERG and the Bruges Group, who are now entirely used to getting what they want. For them, everything in Britain is going swimmingly; there is no need to listen to ‘woke’ voices complaining that we’re swimming in our own faeces.
Truss’s cabal has taken its 2019 victory as carte blanche to do whatever it wants, whether it be torching manifesto commitments over fracking, or running up the national debt to enrich fossil fuel companies.
The late Tony Benn once said that “when you get to No 10, you’ve climbed there on a little ladder called ‘the status quo’. And when you are there, the status quo looks very good.”
Well, Truss and her cabinet of fringe right-wingers have made it to No 10, and secured power for their own narrow sub-section of Conservative thought… and to them and their corporate backers, the status quo looks very good. As Truss herself said at the start of her reality-detached leadership campaign, “we’re… going to have a fantastic time as we barrel around the country.”
Even a cursory glance at the state of the nation would have confirmed that most of us are not having a fantastic time.
Unpopular vision of capitalism
This hubris bodes ill for the idea of good government. Truss may have borrowed Johnson’s electoral legitimacy, but she has none of the energy and enthusiasm he created. His pitch, if there was one beyond those three incessantly repeated words, was for a state-led rejuvenation of England’s neglected regions. It may have been a fraudulent prospectus, but it was a winning one.
Truss clearly intends to deliver the near opposite. At her first PMQs she stated her ideological preference: the state will look the other way while corporations loot the place.
She may well enjoy some success in rolling back the state, at least as long as she continues to squat in Downing Street. When asked to face the country at an election, however, she will be smashed.
Ultimately, people don’t like being conned and they don’t like being looted. While the two big left-wing, pro-nationalisation manifestos of recent British history may have repelled the British electorate, this does not mean the British people don’t recognise a pendulum swinging way too far in the opposite direction, or agree that “slash-and-burn” will prove as effective on polling day as “get Brexit done.”
Trussian capitalism is essentially a protection racket for big business, which has no social utility and does nothing for economic productivity. British people completely understand the importance of effort, enterprise, and economic self-interest. They are also, however, able to identify market failure.
They can tell, by the stench of their rivers, by the exorbitant cost of their train tickets and by their skyrocketing fuel bills, that a free market economy too often works for someone else.
They may bristle at the sight of National Insurance contributions on their payslips, but this doesn’t make them anti-tax zealots who would willingly see their local hospital collapse in exchange for a few pence more on the pound.
Besides, we are several decades on from the world of earnest, hard-working, sleeves-rolled-up free enterprise that underpinned Margaret Roberts’s family grocery shop. The public can sympathise with the kind of investment that sees a local business hire new staff. They have less enthusiasm for the kind that allows a multinational to throw employment rights on the fire.
No charisma, no policy appeal
Despite prodigious use of the dressing up box, Truss is no Thatcher. She is selling a much less desirable product, in a far less charismatic way. Her first PMQs was so dismal that even Keir Starmer, a man not noted for radical bombast, seemed almost populist in demanding big business should pay the cost of support on energy prices, rather than the British people. Johnson never left this kind of terrain open to Starmer.
Truss quit it entirely. Given her cabinet choices, her inflexible economic ideology, and her preference for advice from opaque think tanks, it seems likely that in 2024, the Tories will face the electorate offering them fewer rights, poorer public services and more national debt. Churchill promised Britons to bring them only “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” in defence of the realm. Truss will be offering them the same, but in defence only of Chief Executive pay.
She will make this offer in stilted speeches, cringeworthy public appearances and amid tactical disappearing acts. She will be offering this after 14 years of Conservative rule, in which wages have stagnated, debt has rocketed, trade has tanked, and hospitals have crumbled. She will offer this while being opposed not by a lifelong radical who terrifies middle England, but by a former Director of Public Prosecutions and a Knight of the Realm. The snapshot of opinion seen in current polling makes grim reading for the Conservatives, but the fundamentals look even worse. Truss is a poor leader, pitching an unpopular ideology to an exhausted and impoverished people. Barring an act of a particularly vengeful God, she will lead the Tories to electoral oblivion.