News from Nowhere: Ever Decreasing Circles
Shady monied interests sponsored lobbying groups to cultivate the career and beliefs of a foolish and malleable politician and to convince key agents in the media to support her progress into the nation’s highest office.
There may be those among our readers who grow tired of this column’s relentless weekly depictions of the inane follies of Great Britain’s latest eccentric Prime Minister. But, dear readers, please consider the plight of this poor columnist. One hates to repeat oneself, but there are some things so devastatingly dumb that they cannot be ignored. It would be like the weather reporter on the Pompeii evening news 1,943 years ago neglecting to mention that fateful week’s volcanic activity.
So please don’t blame me if this is all starting to sound a little samey. I am not responsible for the repetitive nature of the acts of eye-watering idiocy perpetrated by the UK’s government.
Blame Liz Truss and her craven Cabinet. Blame their party for electing as its leader a cross between Heihei the chicken from Disney’s Moana and Stan Laurel in a Karen Millen dress. Blame the ancient, angry gods of Albion for what has long since gone beyond a joke.
And, if you’re sitting somewhere outside the UK growing weary of all these shenanigans, please spare a moment to imagine what it’s like for those of us aboard this foundering ship of state, reeling as we feel the world’s sixth-largest economy fall to pieces round our ears.
Last month’s announcement of unfunded tax cuts panicked the financial markets. The Prime Minister’s words of determined reassurance had only stoked the fires. She might as well have sat in TV interviews wearing a snorkel, flippers, and a tutu. Even her Chancellor’s eventual pledge that he would publish his borrowing plan a few weeks earlier than expected spooked the markets and made the costs of borrowing rise sharply again.
That led the Bank of England to step in a third time within weeks to buy government bonds in a bid to calm those markets and prevent the collapse of pension funds. The Bank, however, said this was the last time it could afford to do this. That caused a further drop in the value of the sterling.
On the same day, the International Monetary Fund issued its second warning as to the likely impacts of Ms. Truss’ fiscal policies, predicting that they would exacerbate the inflationary pressures they were supposed to address.
The following morning, even the Truss administration’s keenest cheerleader, the Daily Mail newspaper, felt obliged to raise concerns that the country’s ‘reputation for sound money’ had been ‘swept away’. That morning, the Office for National Statistics also reported that the British economy had started to shrink again.
Her own MPs accused Liz Truss of ‘trashing blue-collar Conservativism’ and described the situation as a ‘maxi-shambles’. One of her ministers admitted the government was in ‘a dreadful place’. The BBC reported that the Prime Minister faced ‘a wall of derision and unease’.
There was open talk of rebellion against her leadership. Many said the only reason she remained in power was that to dump her so fast would be electorally catastrophic.
The crisis of confidence in her government had reached such a peak ten days ago that she hauled her Chancellor back to the UK from a meeting of financial ministers in Washington DC. A few hours earlier, he told reporters he wasn’t going anywhere. Given the accuracy of his previous pronouncements, we might have expected to see him in Woolloomoloo by noon.
By this point, further U-turns on Truss’ keynote fiscal package seemed inevitable. Unflattering comparisons were being made with the financial meltdown suffered by Greece in 2011.
This situation prompted the BBC’s political editor to observe that many members of the Prime Minister’s own party now believed she had ‘tanked and bombed with such unimaginable speed’ that she had to go.
By lunchtime, the Chancellor who’d said he was going nowhere had proven true to his word and had vanished into political oblivion. He’d ended up the way he’d started in the job less than six weeks earlier: fired with zealous enthusiasm. Mr. Kwarteng became the shortest-serving Chancellor in British political history, apart from a man called Iain Macleod who, in July 1970, had died a month into the job.
The pound once again dropped sharply on the news. Ms. Truss then called a press conference to admit that she had accepted the need to backtrack on her flagship fiscal strategy. It felt like the most humiliating climbdown since some unknown New Zealander beat Tibet’s most celebrated mountaineer to the top of Everest, or since Sisyphus came back to fetch his rock. Will Smith’s descent off the steps from the Oscars stage last March had nothing on this.
At that press conference, Liz Truss announced she would ditch her plans to cancel a scheduled rise in corporation tax but nevertheless continued to insist that her fiscal agenda would weather the storm. It was unclear whether this would be enough to salvage the economy or her position.
Commentators immediately noted how stilted and ill-prepared her performance seemed. She had the air of an inexperienced supply teacher desperate to exert her authority over an unruly class.
It sounded like the robot premier’s batteries were flat. Exhibiting all the rhetorical panache of Frankenstein’s monster, her clumsy and halting delivery hardly radiated or inspired confidence. But confidence was exactly what the markets and her party needed.
Rumors began to circulate that a group of senior Conservatives was starting to put together a statement calling upon the Prime Minister to resign. As one BBC reporter noted, this seemed inevitable after she had sacked her Chancellor merely for the sin of ‘agreeing with her’.
Or was she suggesting that she’d been the unwitting victim of some kind of fiscal Svengali who’d duped her into a cult of kamikaze economics?
Her diehard supporter Sir Christopher Chope denounced her detractors as a pack of hungry hyenas. (In 2018, Sir Christopher had become notorious for delaying the passage through parliament of a widely supported bill to make the practice of taking covert photographs up women’s skirts a specific criminal offense. He has repeatedly sought to block popular and progressive parliamentary motions, including ones related to mental health safeguarding and women’s rights. In 2009, it was reported that he had claimed more than £136,000 in expenses as an MP, including nearly £900 to mend a sofa. He makes a slab of boiled gammon look woke. He has the complexion and bearing of an eighteenth-century squire and the sense of entitlement too. He is not necessarily the most prestigious politician to have on your side. You’d not boast about being best friends with ‘Chopper’ Chope.)
Liz Truss new Chancellor’s first duty, the morning after his appointment, was to work his way around the nation’s TV and radio stations, to introduce the idea of tax rises and cuts in government spending, moves that just a few days earlier his boss had emphatically ruled out. He said his predecessor’s mini-budget had gone ‘too far too fast’ and hinted at delaying the proposed income tax reduction by at least a year.
That morning, the Daily Mail, the newspaper whose support had thrust her into power, described Liz Truss’ first thirty-eight days in office as ‘some of the most shambolic in British political history’. The following day, the Sunday Express also turned against her ‘catastrophic stint in Number 10’.
Meanwhile, the Daily Star had bought cheap iceberg lettuce from a supermarket and was offering odds on it outlasting the PM.
The new leadership of the party of home ownership and financial prudence had managed in a matter of days, through unprecedented economic incompetence, to make mortgages unaffordable for huge numbers of voters across the UK.
Ten years ago, Liz Truss had co-authored a book that warned of the irresponsibility of those administrations which accrue unsustainable levels of debt when they allow ‘their optimism to run ahead of their caution’. Yet, this is precisely what she’d chosen to do the very moment that she’d attained power.
Last week, just three days after his appointment, her second Chancellor in as many months spelled out to parliament his scheme to balance the books in a statement that had been brought forward by more than five weeks from the date his predecessor had originally promised. He confirmed earlier U-turns on corporation tax and the highest rate of income tax and reversed most of Truss’ remaining tax cuts, including those on incomes, share dividends, and VAT. In doing so, he effectively trashed the Prime Minister’s core policy platform and her political authority. One Tory MP told the BBC that he simply could not ‘see the point of her anymore’.
That morning, the press had reported that ‘up to 100 backbenchers’ were thought to have submitted letters of no confidence in her leadership. That afternoon, the Prime Minister refused to attend parliament to respond to an urgent question from the Leader of the Opposition, choosing instead to send one of her more popular subordinates in her place. That led the Labour leader to suppose that in the current administration everyone got to be Prime Minister for fifteen minutes.
This all felt like what the BBC’s political editor described as ‘the latest example of a hand-to-mouth government living hour by hour’. Liz Truss had become, as another BBC journalist commented, ‘a hostage as Prime Minister, nothing more than that’. One of her MPs told the media that ‘her days in Number 10 were ‘numbered’. Another put it rather more bluntly, ‘She’s toast.’
By lunchtime, a Conservative parliamentarian representing a rural constituency – a safe Tory seat – in the West Midlands had gone even further, becoming one of the very few members of his tribe (after the former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries) to go on the record calling for a general election.
Later that day, Ms. Truss took part in a televised interview in which she insisted that she would lead the Tories into the next election and was ‘not focused on internal debates within the Conservative Party’. The interviewer pointed out that she probably should be.
She admitted that she had ‘made mistakes’. ‘It hasn’t been perfect,’ she said.
She sounded like a schoolchild who’d been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. She looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights. She appeared stunned by the repercussions of her own ill-considered actions. The interviewer pointed out that her main rival for the leadership of her party and her country had warned that her proposals would end in disaster and that he had been proven right.
He then quoted a selection of comments from her own MPs: ‘It’s checkmate… We’re stuffed… It’s dire… We’re all done for.’
The next day, her new Chancellor told his Cabinet colleagues that they would have to find tens of billions of pounds in savings from their public expenditure budgets. This was the direct consequence of the economic chaos into which the Prime Minister had managed, in a few weeks, to plunge the UK.
Then on Wednesday, with inflation reported that morning as exceeding ten percent for the first time in forty years, Liz Truss headed to parliament to face the scorn of her peers in her weekly round of questions from the House. She was of course walking into a well-prepared ambush.
Sitting down to chronicle the day’s political theatre, I was tempted to report that she’d never turned up at parliament and that she’d gone missing for several days until she’d been discovered by a party of holidaying tabloid journalists, semi-conscious and utterly incoherent, in a bar in Málaga. It would almost have been a better outcome for everyone concerned.
‘What’s the point of a Prime Minister whose promises don’t even last a week?’ asked the Leader of the Opposition. ‘Why is she still here?’ She flailed in her responses, repeating her excuses, offering little of any substance, and provoking some unintended hilarity across the chamber when she demanded that criticisms of her administration should involve ‘some reflection of economic reality’. She asserted, with no apparent hint of irony, that she had acted decisively to ensure the nation’s ‘economic stability’. It was unclear which nation she was speaking of, or what planet she was on. She stressed that she was ‘a fighter not a quitter’, much to the dismay of many of her fellow parliamentarians.
Several of her own MPs questioned her reluctance to guarantee benefits rise in line with inflation, her commitment to overseas aid, social care, and health service budgets, and her eagerness to restart fracking.
Having suggested earlier in the week that state pension levels might be hit by spending cuts (and facing outrage as to ‘millions facing pain’ from that morning’s Daily Mail), she then assured parliament that they wouldn’t be. As the BBC pointed out, she had ‘now about-turned again, back to where she was originally’.
Yet, even as she was addressing the Commons, the media were reporting that one of her senior advisors had been suspended, pending an investigation by Whitehall’s Propriety and Ethics Team.
Shortly afterward, a backbencher from Manchester – the chair of the parliamentary committee that oversees Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs – became the seventh Tory MP to publicly call for Liz Truss to go.
This was followed, later on Wednesday, by the resignation of the Home Secretary, following what the press described as a ninety-minute shouting match with her boss. That was half of the holders of the four great offices of state gone in less than seven weeks since the start of the administration, or two in five days.
The Home Secretary resigned on something of a technical pretext, citing a communications protocol mistake she had made, but her devastating resignation letter raised concerns as to the direction of the government and the need for politicians to take responsibility for their actions.
Her replacement was a man who had a few days earlier been lobbying colleagues to abandon the Prime Minister, and who, in his previous role as Transport Secretary, had presided over pandemonium by land, air, and sea. This government had reached the dregs of political life. The bottom of the barrel had been well and truly scraped.
But that wasn’t the end of Wednesday’s drama. That evening, amidst a cascade of mixed messages from the government, the House of Commons descended into chaos, with allegations of verbal and physical intimidation being applied to force MPs to toe the party line in a vote on fracking. Ms. Truss herself was seen running after the Conservatives’ Chief Whip – the person in charge of discipline in the parliamentary party – who was threatening to quit.
The Chair of the Committee on Standards and Privileges condemned these scenes, adding that this was ‘not how we are supposed to do our business – this is not the Italian parliament!’
One veteran Tory backbencher told the media that the situation was a ‘disgrace’ and that he had ‘had enough of talentless people’ running the country. By Thursday morning, the Daily Mail was saying their former protégé’s premiership was in freefall.
That morning, the only loyal Cabinet minister the BBC could find to go live on air to defend her boss was, under repeated questioning, unwilling to assert that Liz Truss would be there to lead their party into the next election.
As Thursday dragged on, more of her own MPs came out and said the Prime Minister should quit, and, as the markets responded to the political turmoil, the cost of government borrowing started to rise again.
At lunchtime, Liz Truss sat down to a hastily arranged meeting with the chair of the 1922 Committee, the powerful group of backbench Tory MPs which can call a vote to unseat a Prime Minister. The official line was that the meeting had been called so that Ms. Truss could ‘keep in touch with the mood of the party’. This seemed a rather optimistic gloss on the situation. The words ‘too little, too late’ might have sprung to mind. (The 1922 Committee was in fact established in 1923 and was named in honor of the previous year’s generation of MPs, whom it comprised, but it would be pleasing to think that the repeated displays of its authority this year have been a good way to mark its centenary.)
The Prime Minister then called the media together to present a statement to the nation outside Downing Street early on Thursday afternoon. She admitted that she was unable to deliver her program for the government and that she was therefore tendering her resignation.
It’s difficult to envisage a worse start, or end, to any term in office. Few Downing Street debuts could have been more disastrous, without having declared war on Wales, bet the gold reserves on a greyhound race, or left the nuclear codes on a bus.
A fortnight ago, at the start of his weekly meeting with his new Prime Minister, the country’s new King had been caught on camera muttering ‘dear oh dear’.
Oh dear, indeed. Everything that Liz Truss' bunch of muppets tried to do somehow managed to have the opposite effect to that which they ostensibly intended. She displayed an almost superhuman talent for blundering ineptitude. Everything she touched turned to trash. Her party might as well have elected Boris Johnson’s dog Dilyn into Downing Street.
This latest crisis in Britain’s political life feels like watching a car crash in slow motion, on an endless loop. Try as you might, you just can’t look away.
It’s like experiencing a car crash in slow motion from the inside. It makes you sick to the stomach just to think about it.
It’s like watching the driver take their eyes off the road to look for an old tin of toffees in the glove compartment, while they twist the steering wheel towards an oncoming HGV.
Mary Elizabeth Truss became the fourth Tory premier that Britain had seen in the last six years. She was the third elected directly to the nation’s most exalted office by the Conservative Party rather than by the British people at large. There is about to be a fourth, scheduled to be elected by Conservative MPs within a week, the fifth Prime Minister in six years.
This line of lackluster leaders has made for a profoundly sorry spectacle, a soul-destroying sequence of the increasingly obdurate and obtuse. Each one has seemed far worse than the last. Each has appeared to be as bad as we could possibly ever get.
David Cameron was a privileged plutocrat playing at politics, ready to take risks with the constitutional integrity and economic stability of the nation in a bid to secure his own political objectives. He was a smooth-talking schoolboy who walked away in 2016 as soon as his gambles failed to pay off and the game began to get unexpectedly tough.
His successor Theresa May was way out of her depth, an uncharismatic and unimaginative technocrat, grey in feature and demeanor, obliged to institute a foolhardy economic strategy that she knew was profoundly flawed. She was ultimately a rather tragic figure who lacked the capacity for trickery and magic needed to pull off her impossible task.
Boris Johnson was then the conjurer his party thought it needed, a trickster, narcissist, and fabulist, a duplicitous man-child who should never have been given the keys to a Tesla Roadster, let alone to Downing Street. He constantly struggled to make up for in charisma what he lacked in character, an embodiment, as he was, of hubris, idleness, moral complacency, dog Latin, and animal appetites.
And then came Mary Elizabeth Truss, a premier caricatured by many of her colleagues as not only intellectually incompetent but very possibly also mentally unstable. Karl Marx said history repeats itself for the first time as tragedy and for the second time as farce. It appears that the third time is Truss.
Ms. Truss’ first act in office was to assemble around her a team of none of the talents. Her first Chancellor managed to panic the financial markets, exponentially increasing national debt, and fuel interest rate rises and inflation in his opening statement to parliament.
With her hostility to immigration and civil protest, her first Home Secretary seemed determined to prove herself even more of a movie supervillain than her predecessor. One might imagine her chaining James Bond to a table and having a go at him with lasers... at least if 007 was a child refugee. She could hench for Elon Musk.
Her Foreign Secretary, a certain Mr. Cleverly, has always managed to demonstrate why children’s author Roger Hargreaves never wrote a book about him, every single time he opens his mouth. ‘Cleverly by name and Cleverly by nature’ most regrettably he is not.
Meanwhile, the Health Secretary was forced to admit that although she ditched her predecessor’s anti-obesity strategy, she could herself do well to lose a few pounds. She smokes cigars and is partial to a pint of Irish stout. As a role model for a healthy lifestyle, she makes Donald Trump look like Usain Bolt.
She had also been appointed to serve as Deputy Prime Minister. In the noble tradition of Tony Blair’s second-in-command John ‘Two Takeaways’ Prescott, she became one of those deputies who look like they’ve just eaten their boss.
It isn’t easy to see how much further downward the country could travel in its vertiginous spiral of leaders of diminishing talents and morality. Who will the Tories pick next? Might Hannibal Lecter, Lord Voldemort, or Darth Vader be available? What’s Kim Kardashian’s diary looking like? Does anyone have a phone number for Mr. Bean?
Even Boris Johnson doesn’t look too bad from here. The treacherous snake Michael Gove and the Victorian stick insect Jacob Rees-Mogg may even be eyeing the prize.
Liz Truss was not the favorite among her own MPs to succeed Mr. Johnson. Yet her parliamentary party was faced with the fact that to ditch her within weeks of her election would not only be political dynamite – it could spell electoral suicide.
With the IMF treating the UK like a developing world nation, the pound plunging to an all-time low, the government in chaos, and inflation and interest rates escalating rapidly, one is forced to recall that surreal moment in 1973 when Ugandan President Idi Amin submitted a formal offer through diplomatic channels to establish an international aid fund to save Britain from financial collapse.
Yes, it feels remarkably like it's the seventies coming back, an era of strikes, stagflation, and power cuts. Earlier this month, the UK’s national grid warned of blackouts this winter. The next day, it was reported that Downing Street had vetoed government plans for a public information campaign encouraging reductions in energy use. It appeared the Prime Minister’s people felt that the optics of this latest vista of doom and gloom wouldn’t have been too brilliant.
However, it remains unclear whether, if we don’t turn out our lights ourselves, the power companies eventually might.
How could democracy ever have led us to this point of utter insanity? It surely couldn’t. Well, perhaps it really didn’t.
Liz Truss was brought to power by the influence of the Tory tabloid press upon the Conservative Party’s select electorate, as coordinated and manipulated by invisible monied interests via a small number of elite lobbying institutes.
As The Guardian newspaper’s well-regarded columnist George Monbiot wrote earlier this month, Liz Truss had effectively handed the reins of government to a set of ‘dark-money think tanks’, half a dozen ‘shadily funded’ right-wing organizations which promote their enthusiasm for small-state, free-market capitalism as they cluster together in a quiet London side-street just a couple of minutes walk from the Palace of Westminster.
Sam Bright suggested in The New York Times that these groups ‘wanted to blow up the British economy and Liz Truss let them’. Some might suppose that they had sought out and nurtured a blinkered ideological zealot as the figurehead for the implementation of their strategy, someone sufficiently limited, compromised, ambitious, and insecure to act as their unquestioning puppet. They found this in the politician they put into Downing Street. She met the person's specifications with admirable accuracy.
The impacts of their explosive strategy may have benefited certain super-rich players in the financial markets and the transnational corporate giants, but they have already done extraordinary harm to the livelihoods and lives of tens of millions of ordinary British people. And it appears that this may only be the beginning.
Conspiracy theories are, of course, for the most part nonsensical. Yet it seems that the crazy idea of a shadowy Illuminati secretly running the show from behind the scenes has so appealed to these eccentric and unelected groups of global capital’s fanboys, fangirls, and their cadres of hangers-on and assorted inadequates, that they have, over the decades, decided to transform that absurd conceit into the devastating absurdity of an irresistible reality.
It's a curious assertion to make, but, if only these people could have developed decent social and emotional lives or just taken up rather less harmful hobbies, the UK very possibly wouldn’t be in the awful bind in which it now finds itself. This is a crushing economic experiment perpetrated by a gang of wannabe powerbrokers without any ostensible sense of moral responsibility, nor even enough imagination to comprehend the human consequences of their cruel games. They’ve been playing with millions of families’ futures, and they really don’t appear to care.
This isn’t just about privilege, arrogance, and greed – though it is obviously also about those things. It feels like it’s, at its heart, about how these small-minded control freaks try to prove themselves to be better than the rest of us, and somehow get their revenge on the whole of the world for never quite letting them in.
We’re little more than ants in an ant farm or laboratory mice in a maze to these wanton gamesters. It amuses them to use us for their sport.
They are fiscal fantasists, the scientologists of supply-side economics, whose cultish creed seeks to reduce the complexities of international finance to an unfeasibly simplistic equation.
This isn’t about politics, about the legitimate differences between generally well-meaning personalities in the mainstream parties. It’s about the accumulation of wealth and power for its own sake. It’s a game of chance on a grand and dangerous scale.
It’s been a bunch of policy wonks unleashed upon the nation like a troupe of laissez-faire larpers performing their own version of an economic Ragnarok, a round of Dungeons and Dragons with stocks and shares for the uncool kids who couldn’t get a date.
This was an experiment that has now failed, a devastating and pointless pursuit. As one former Tory Cabinet minister declared, ‘it is now self-evident for a generation it didn’t work’. Or, as the Conservative MP for North Dorset put it, it had been ‘strangled at birth’.
Yet there is no contrition from among those who treated their country with such casual contempt. The trolls of Tufton Street plot on, ready to roll out their tricks once more, the next time the nation drops its guard against the machinations of these architects of chaos.
These reckless gamblers may like to pose as grandmasters, but they’ve mistaken their chess board for a cheese board and have just fondued their queen. Gollums of Middle England, they will continue to call for their rings of power, ruthless in their focus upon the precious, empty objects of their desperate desire, bound to their quest long after it has stopped making any possible sense, intractable, remorseless, and unkind.
Theirs has been an obsessive exercise in futility and self-harm, unwavering in its fixation upon the trajectory of a government’s doomed flight, an entire nation reimagined as the Kobayashi Maru. It was as if the captain of the Titanic saw the iceberg and refused to give way.
Yet in her bid to outstare the markets, the champion of the laissez-faire lobbyists was the first to blink. The gung-ho Heihei lost her game of chicken and provoked both the ire of her supply-side allies and the disdain of her more moderate peers. It’s now remarkably hard to see where we might be able to go from here.
Shady monied interests sponsored lobbying groups to cultivate the career and beliefs of a foolish and malleable politician and to convince key agents in the media to support her progress into the nation’s highest office. They doubtless made their profits out of the turmoil they created in the financial markets, and then left her and the entire country shellshocked by what she had done, perhaps unknowingly, on their behalf.
Yet surely someone so naive could never really attain such heights of political office.
Might this simply have all been the most brilliant double-bluff since Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated from the throne of France and headed to Elba, swearing never to come back? Was Liz Truss after all, as her father once hoped, the old Soviet Union's longest-surviving sleeper agent in the eternal struggle against the hegemony of international capital? If she was, then that might count as her political career’s only tangible success.
The brevity of her stint in Downing Street and the ongoing crisis in the economy and her party have pushed many in the country to demand a general election. It remains to be seen whether the Tories can get their act together and select a new leader who might unite their various factions and reverse their political fortunes, but nobody’s currently holding their breath.