“Adam, you know this is a new administration!” Nadhim Zahawi told me on Times Radio last Sunday. I responded that I didn’t, because, to the best of my recollection, the Conservative Party has been in power continuously since 2010, and Liz Truss had moved from being Foreign Secretary to Prime Minister just as he had slid from the Treasury to the Department of Health.
We are now desperately trying to digest what Zahawi would doubtless call a new new administration. All at sea, voters are scrambling to get their bearings and save their property. This is the greatest period of political uncertainty since 1940 when, as now, the Conservatives could not agree which of variously discredited Prime Ministers they should anoint to lead the nation.
For some pointers on the big question – How long can Liz Truss last? – it is worth looking at the recent history of the Conservative Party. Now that the Bank of England has re-instated economic orthodoxy, let us start conventionally with the most familiar, contradictory, but oddly comforting, great thoughts about history.
As an atavistic disrupter, who attempted to start her government from Year Zero, Liz Truss agrees with the innovative American car maker Henry Ford that “History is, more or less, bunk”. Big mistake. Karl Marx was a better analyst than creative economist and he concluded that “history repeats itself, the first as tragedy, then as farce.” The philosopher George Santayana warned “those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it”. While Confucius, he says, “In history lies all the secrets of state craft”. Truss failed to learn, or even to look for, these lessons.
This is a classic leadership crisis. Ignorance, arrogance and inexperience culminated in palpable misjudgments which failed to convince either the markets or the electorate. As Mrs Thatcher knew, “You can’t buck the markets”. There was no credible evidence that borrowing for tax cuts during a de facto recession could produce quick and sustainable growth, let alone compensate for the ever deeper black hole in the nation’s finances. Kwarteng has found out the hard way that diagnosing slow growth and high taxation is not the same as curing it.
History does not repeat itself precisely but the Conservative Party has certainly been in a similar mess before, divided and saddled with a lame duck leader – as Duncan Smith, May and Johnson know to their cost. For me the most indicative parallels are with the fates of Iain Duncan Smith in 2003 and John Major following Black Wednesday in 1992.
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IDS was leader of the opposition, rather than Prime Minister. The issues about his leadership were personal rather than linked to a cabinet team. He was the first leader chosen in a ballot by the Tory party leadership following “democratising” changes brought in by William Hague. His ousting as leader was brutally quick. He gave his conference speech on 9th October, lost a confidence vote of MPs less than three weeks later on 29th October and resigned on 6th November. The Conservatives put on a public show of loyalty at the Conference, breaking up the leader’s speech with almost twenty standing ovations. Privately MPs were quick to mutter that “he had to go.” Truss did not seek or enjoy similar two-faced public displays of devotion in Birmingham this year. She has thrown her chancellor over board in record time, just over a fortnight after a lacklustre conference.
John Major and his chancellor Norman Lamont were also “joined at the hip” like Truss and Kwarteng, in their case supporting sterling’s membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Unlike Truss, Major kept his chancellor on after their crisis day of soaring mortgages on Black Wednesday on 16th September 1992. The pair were cruelly caricatured as a Laurel and Hardy duo. Like “I’m not going anywhere” Kwarteng, Lamont shouldered his way through the annual IMF/World Bank meeting in Washington DC claiming he was “singing in the bath”. Unlike Kwarteng, Lamont survived until May the following year, when another musical sally – “Je ne regrette rien” – during the Newbury by-election campaign finally cost him his job. The Conservatives lost catastrophically to the Liberal Democrats.
The good augury for Truss may be that Major struggled on until the next election. It was almost five years hence in his case because he had just won his own mandate at a general election. Truss has at most only two years, three months, before she is due to face the voters for the first time as Prime Minister. Major even survived putting himself up for re-election by his MPs. It is inconceivable that Truss would be so lucky. She was not MPs’ first choice in this year’s leadership contest and that was before her “vision” was put to the test in a the real life laboratory of the global economy.
The bad news for the Conservative Party is that Major survived only for his party to be buried under the landslide of Tony Blair’s first election victory, followed by twelve years of Labour rule.
The Tory party membership allowed candidates to tickle the tummy of their prejudices repeatedly and served up dud national leaders as a result. They will not be allowed to do so again. Truss’s fate is in hands of the markets, her own MPs and, in the unlikely event that she survives that long, in the hands of the electorate, which is quite possibly the judgment Tory MPs currently most fear.
In the short term, Truss did little to help herself in the manner of her sacking Kwarteng and her brief, stony, seven minute press conference confirming her relaunch. If she still thinks she and Kwarteng were “right”, why did she sack him? Without apology she blamed others: “Parts of our mini-budget went further and faster than the markets were expecting.” The markets however had already anticipated her U-turn on corporation tax and did not seem further reassured by her public appearance. Stripped of her radical policies and credibility what is the point of Prime Minister Liz Truss?
Truss and her new chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, hope that they will have a breathing space until his financial announcement on Halloween. But that statement was forced forward by circumstances, and the government is not in control of the timetable.
Conservative MPs could move against Truss in the next few days. They are already canvassing whether they could agree on a single unity candidate, thereby short-circuiting the need to hold a ballot of the membership. This would require a pact between Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt. In such circumstances, the 1922 committee would lift the 12 month cordon protecting Truss with alacrity. But a loyalist, rightwing candidate such as Suella Braverman, or maybe the newly resurrected Jeremy Hunt, could easily spoil this cunning plan. Make a mess of it and MPs could end up with both another leader they do not want and having to fight a general election.
The Sun journalist Harry Cole has co-authored a new biography of Truss. He was one of only four, all men, called by Truss to ask her question on Friday. The others were from the Daily Telegraph, ITV and BBC. Out of the Blue is due out by Christmas; the question is whether his protagonist will be out by Christmas as well.
Kwarteng was Chancellor of the Exchequer for thirty eight days, shorter than Nadhim Zahawi who minded the shop over the summer. There have been four chancellors since July. Truss is the fourth Tory leader in six years. Assuming financial stability is restored, the yearning for a quiet life could be enough to keep Truss in place for the next few months.
4th May 2023 is the date to look out for according to one veteran of the Tory trenches. That’s when the Council Elections take place. A dire Conservative performance in the same seats in 2019, he believes, is what finally persuaded Conservative MPs that Mrs May had to go. Then whether to choose a new administration would properly be in the hands of the voters.
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