News from Nowhere: All Trussed Up
One thing seems reasonably certain, in relation both to the country’s economic fate and to this leadership race. Before things get any better, they’re going to get a whole lot worse.
On the first day of this month, Liz Truss’s campaign for the leadership of the British Conservative Party – and, de facto, the job of UK Prime Minister – hit its first major faux pas.
Her entourage had proposed that, in a bid to save billions from the national purse, public sector workers in poorer parts of the country should receive lower salaries. Boris Johnson’s government had spoken a lot about ‘levelling up’ those same less advantaged areas, although it had never done much about it. By contrast, Ms. Truss was now proposing to reduce the Treasury’s cash flow to those regions in a process which the Labour Party swiftly branded as ‘levelling down’. It was a strategy which, the Opposition said, would ‘worsen the divide which already exists’.
Conservative MPs with constituencies in the north and south-west of England were also quick to distance themselves from a plan that would have seen their own voters paid less for the same jobs than residents of the affluent south-east of the country.
Truss backer – and supercilious human stick-insect – Jacob Rees-Mogg insisted that these workers would be ‘paid the market rate in the area in which they live’. Within twelve hours of their announcement, however, Team Truss had backtracked on the idea, claiming it had been intentionally misrepresented by their opponents.
Meanwhile, those same Tory critics described the whole incident as a ‘catastrophic error of judgment’. The BBC observed that Truss supporters hoped that their immediate U-turn would ‘limit the damage’.
This latest development had come a week after her opponent Rishi Sunak had been accused of a volte-face on his pledge not to cut taxes, with his announcement of a proposed emergency measure to scrap VAT on energy bills. But Sunak’s change of heart had at least been an attempt to make his fiscal conservatism look like it in fact had a heart – to make it seem more compassionate and in touch with the real experiences of ordinary people facing a cost-of-living crisis unknown for decades. By contrast, Truss’s initial plan had made her platform look suddenly callous and detached from the daily strife that affected millions.
(That week, the BBC also noted another ostensible policy reversal from Mr. Sunak, reporting that he had ‘appeared to U-turn himself on his own policy to scrap plans to relax the ban on onshore wind in England’. Although his team later claimed that he had ‘misspoken’, this incident received no further coverage, nor indeed seemed to matter to anyone very much, as nobody appeared to know what it actually meant.)
Last month, this column suggested that it would take something ‘insanely stupid’ to derail the momentum of Liz Truss’s campaign. There were some who felt at the start of this month that her ‘levelling down’ misstep might have been precisely that.
The following morning, however, the front pages of the national press chose to ignore that controversy. The Tory papers had already had a massive impact upon this contest, and they continued that day to exert that influence in conspicuous service to Ms. Truss.
The Times declared that Truss held a thirty-six-point lead in the race. The Daily Express reported her claim that she could deliver the economic growth that Britain would need. The Daily Mail formally announced its support for her leadership bid: ‘she has the boldness, vision and strength of conviction to build on what Boris began’.
In truth, those whose memories went back more than twenty-four hours might have thought that her campaign’s attempts to blame others for ‘misrepresenting’ her own serious lack of judgment in this matter had certainly offered a sense of continuity with the moral stance of the Johnson administration and its repeated failures to take responsibility for its own failings.
However, within a couple of days, former leadership rival (and former Chancellor, Health Secretary and Home Secretary) Sajid Javid had joined a growing number of senior Conservatives in endorsing Ms. Truss’s candidacy. The day of the disastrous policy reversal itself had seen her greatest rival, Penny Mordaunt – whose own bid had been sunk by Team Truss orchestrating a smear campaign against her in the Tory press – announce her backing for the frontrunner in the race.
It was clear that deals had been struck with such major players in the party and the media to ensure Mary Elizabeth Truss’s clear passage to Downing Street.
In early August, changes had been made to the voting process, on the advice of British intelligence services, to minimize the possibility of external interference in the Conservative Party’s leadership election through potential cybersecurity breaches. Nobody however appeared especially concerned about the backroom bargains that had already cast their shady influence upon these proceedings.
Indeed, one might suppose that the selection of a new Prime Minister by members of just one political party, representing less than half of one percent of the nation’s population eligible to vote, could hardly have been considered particularly democratic in the first place.
Rishi Sunak must have been asking himself by this point why he was bothering. Even the announcement of one of the most absurdly inane policy proposals imaginable – yes, a plan to reduce incomes in the most deprived parts of the country – hadn’t dented his opponent’s popularity one jot.
Nobody had even batted an eyelid when one of her responses in a TV debate in late July had caused the host to lose consciousness. Truss seemed as fireproof as Trump. Mr. Sunak may have been wondering what it would take to damage her. Might she, like Donald Trump, get away with being taped boasting of multiple sexual assaults? What if she dissed David Attenborough or punched the Queen?
No, even if she’d announced a plan to ban beer, fried food and football, Liz Truss’s rise to power now looked utterly unstoppable.
A few days after Team Truss’s ‘levelling down’ disaster, video footage emerged of Rishi Sunak telling supporters in the wealthy Home Counties that he had diverted to their parts of the country funds which would have otherwise been earmarked for ‘deprived urban areas’. It really looked like nothing could go wrong for Liz Truss’s campaign.
That same week, Her Majesty’s Opposition tried to provoke public outrage when it called for an inquiry into her failure to declare that she had been provided with free hospitality by a private London club to host a champagne dinner for MPs whose support she was courting. Unfortunately for Labour, just hours later it was revealed that their own leader had neglected to declare similar financial interests on eight separate occasions. That took the force out of their own righteous indignation, and the story quietly died.
The real story should not of course have been about Truss’s accounting oversight. It ought to have asked why Mr. Johnson’s faithful Foreign Secretary had been busy wooing Tory parliamentarians in preparation for her leadership bid more than eight months before her boss announced his decision to quit. But that curious anomaly failed to catch much attention in a media environment readying itself for the coronation of its favored candidate.
The trouble is of course that the Daily Mail’s preference for Prime Minister is perhaps the least capable out of the entire original field. But that may in many ways be exactly what the right-wing press wants: another puppet premier.
In a TV debate earlier this month, Ms. Truss declared that ‘bold’ action was needed in response to the Bank of England’s latest prediction of 13 per cent inflation and at least a year of economic recession. She later added that economic forecasts were ‘not destiny’. Her readiness to ignore the Bank’s warnings recalled the attitude of Boris Johnson’s erstwhile henchman Michael Gove, who famously argued during the 2016 Brexit campaign that the UK had ‘had enough of experts’.
The following morning, the Daily Telegraph reported that sixty per cent of its readers supported Liz Truss.
Her pig-headed refusal to face accepted facts exemplifies her style of politics, an approach which echoes Boris Johnson’s. It places the emphasis upon acts of risk-taking bravado without any great measure of rational, evidence-based substance. It is the unthinking optimism of pure populism.
This brand of maverick bombast may be a quality that the public might reasonably wish to see in a 1970s action movie star. It is perhaps less appropriate for a forward-looking statesperson in an increasingly complex and turbulent world.
Rishi Sunak has argued that if the government fails to tackle the threat of inflation the Conservatives can ‘kiss goodbye’ to any hope of winning the next general election. But as Johnson, Trump and Truss know, their supporters most often prefer to embrace the unrealistic hopes of false promises than to acknowledge the uncomfortable reality of their situations.
There are reasons to suspect that Liz Truss’s promised tax cuts might in fact exacerbate inflationary tendencies in the economy without doing much to ameliorate the impacts of the country’s cost-of-living crisis. Her plans to reverse a recent rise in national insurance would most benefit the highest paid. Her proposal to cancel a scheduled rise in corporation tax would also do little to help those worst off. Her pledge to suspend green levies on energy bills would again privilege the biggest spenders.
However, her rejection of a culture of ‘handouts’ (which she claims her opponent wants) as ideologically un-conservative goes down well in the true-blue heartlands, among party members hostile to any brand of state welfare being deployed to support those most in need.
Like Margaret Thatcher, she rejects the paternalistic condescension of a traditional one-nation Toryism. At the same time, she chooses to ignore the lessons of the painful socio-economic schisms which Thatcherite policies caused.
A week ago, Mr. Sunak wrote in The Sun newspaper that his rival was offering a ‘big bung’ to the wealthy, while leaving the poor ‘out in the cold’. It feels difficult to disagree with him, at least on this point.
As one Tory backbencher told the BBC last week, it is the core responsibility of government to ensure that the ‘most economically vulnerable’ are properly protected, rather than to provide a bonanza of tax cuts for those already well provided for.
The future of course remains unsure. Yet one thing seems reasonably certain, in relation both to the country’s economic fate and to this leadership race. Before things get any better, they’re going to get a whole lot worse.