News from Nowhere: Nowhere Fast
Looking into the UK Prime Minister's eyes, one might see her in desperation, as someone who has fallen over the first hurdle and has nothing else up her sleeve, the eyes of someone who will next just slip on a banana peel and onto the answer like in a Scooby Doo cartoon. However, it is unlikely that she would be as lucky as Scooby Doo.
With the world teetering on the brink of nuclear war, the extreme right resurgent in Europe, a global energy crisis, a growing spate of natural disasters fuelled by climate change, and tensions escalating between China and the United States, this is not perhaps the best time for the British Prime Minister to be throwing her weight around with all the economic rationality of King Midas out on a drunken bender and desperately needing hugs.
Following financial market turmoil, interest rate rises and a collapse in the value of the pound in the immediate wake of her announcement of a plan for massive borrowing to fund tax cuts for the super-rich, Liz Truss had admitted to the possibility of “disruption in the short term” but nevertheless insisted that her government had a “clear plan” and an “iron grip on the national finances” as she sought to “put Britain on the path to long-term success.”
The Governor of the Bank of England, who had a few days earlier been forced to commit £65 billion to shore up the value of government bonds in a bid to stabilize pension funds, might have begged to disagree.
Those struggling to feed their families and pay their bills may share that scepticism.
With the country facing rampant rates of inflation, Ms. Truss’s economically incendiary policies have seemed calculated to make price rises rage even worse.
The revelation that she had turned down an offer from her administration’s own Office for Budget Responsibility to publish their expert forecast of the impacts of her fiscal strategy alongside the announcement of that plan had hardly underpinned trust in her leadership.
In an article published in The Sun newspaper at the start of this month, she repeatedly stressed to the readers of that populist tabloid that she was on their side. It may have felt that she was protesting just a bit too much.
The day before, an opinion poll had given the opposition Labour Party an extraordinary 33-point lead over Truss’s ruling Conservatives. This was a Prime Minister who had only been in power for a few weeks. Much of that time had been spent with the government cocooned in a period of national mourning following the death of the Queen. Liz Truss had managed to devastate the country’s economy and her own party’s political fortunes in a matter of days.
Since then, Westminster has been rife with concerns as to her mental stability. Members of her own party have been growing understandably jittery.
The day that Truss’s Sun article was published, the country was frozen by national rail and mail strikes.
There are those who might suggest that, rather than pushing its dangerously aggressive economic interventions, the UK government might instead focus on playing its part in trying to resolve a critical set of domestic and international disputes. Rather than threatening to unleash the fracking industry across the country, it might consider investing in the infrastructure of sustainable energy production. Rather than promoting tax breaks for the rich, it might attempt to mitigate the impacts upon ordinary people of the inflationary pressures that its own ill-considered actions have severely exacerbated.
Or, as one former Conservative cabinet minister put it, "we want something sane". Sadly, that may prove to be rather a vain hope. It seemed that, in the words of a former Tory Chancellor, "the lunatics have truly taken over the asylum."
Another key Tory player and powerbroker, and a mainstay of the previous administration, Michael Gove declared that the new Prime Minister’s fiscal policy had provided a display of the "wrong values" at a time when "people are suffering".
Liz Truss has since admitted that she might have "laid the ground better" for her tax strategy, but that she remained confident it would lead to economic growth. Challenged, in a BBC interview at the start of this month, about abolishing the top rate of tax for the highest earners, she nevertheless appeared to distance herself from this initiative, saying that it had been her Chancellor’s decision and that her Cabinet had not been consulted.
This seemed an extraordinary assertion, an admission that she hadn’t closely determined this crucial policy herself. It also appeared like something of a betrayal of her most loyal lieutenant, especially given that she had appointed him only the previous month.
The Prime Minister nevertheless emphasized that she was sticking with the proposal to cut the taxes of the rich. She was definite about that. One hundred per cent. The following day, her Chancellor announced they were dumping that plan.
During her leadership campaign, Liz Truss had swiftly ditched her own proposal to reduce the salaries of public sector workers based in the most disadvantaged areas of the country. She did so the moment that every sensible person in the country had said it appeared to be completely crazy.
As markets continued to panic in the face of uncertainty over Treasury plans for balancing their books, her government was also this month obliged to reverse its reiterated intention to delay the publication of its debt strategy until late November. At the same time, Ms. Truss repeatedly fudged her responses on the contentious issue of breaking her predecessor’s pledge to maintain the levels of benefit payments in line with inflation.
She frequently likes to pose as a contemporary incarnation of Margaret Thatcher, a leader who famously told it straight and denied the possibility of policy U-turns. Yet Ms. Truss has, by contrast, shown herself to be as prone to reversals as the driver of an HGV with dodgy steering stuck during an earthquake in a crumbling cul-de-sac.
The combination of her poor political judgment and her lack of political courage and consistency in the face of plunging opinion polls and escalating controversies in her own party will be unlikely to engender trust among the electorate.
The optics from her party’s annual conference this month could hardly have been much worse. It is unclear why the Conservative leader, whose left-wing father once supposed she might be a sleeper agent for the socialist cause, secretly plotting to bring down capitalism from within, chose to wear red. It may be that she wanted to distance herself from the ridicule she has suffered for dressing like her idol, the true-blue Mrs. Thatcher. It may be that she was giving an unsubtle signal that her father was right. It may simply be that she has totally lost the plot.
She strode onto the stage to deliver her keynote speech accompanied by the hit 1993 song "Moving On Up". Songwriter Mike Pickering then swiftly announced that he was "upset" and "livid" that his work had been appropriated to support the Prime Minister’s agenda.
Having just crashed the economy with an ill-conceived package of fiscal measures, Liz Truss declared to her assembled colleagues that her government must "stay the course" through these "stormy days". However, one well-regarded center-right think tank swiftly responded that her administration embodied "amateurism and amorality".
With infighting turning into open warfare amongst the factions of its delegates, and many parliamentarians simply choosing to stay away, the Tories’ annual get-together in the end amounted to what the BBC’S political editor called "a showcase of dysfunction and division."
A poll published in the immediate wake of her conference speech showed that Liz Truss now enjoyed the support of only 14 per cent of the great British public. She looks set to make the dismal last days of her predecessor’s term of office look as popular as a policy of free chips and chocolate for all, a plan he’d probably have pursued if he’d thought it might have gained him a few more weeks in power.
Last week, four Cabinet ministers published articles in different newspapers on the same day, calling for Tories to unite behind the Prime Minister. Many would of course be very keen to do so, if only to stab her in the back. As one BBC correspondent pointed out, the need for such pleas for unity might be interpreted as revealing the deep schisms within the party and as a "sign of vulnerability" in Downing Street.
Rarely has such chaos been seen at the heart of government, with core strategies seemingly being conceived on the hoof, announced off the cuff, and reversed on the trot. It makes one almost nostalgic for the halcyon days of Boris Johnson’s premiership, when at least we might pretend that the reason that nothing ever made any sense was that half of it was in Latin. Compared to today’s shameful shower, the previous administration ran like clockwork – albeit like an absurd clockwork contraption from out of the imagination of Heath Robinson or a Looney Tunes cartoon.
We may now witness in the eyes of our new Prime Minister the insane desperation of someone whose one big idea has fallen at the very first hurdle and who has nothing else up her sleeve. It is the madness of one racing at breakneck speed who suddenly realises their brakes are shot and they have nowhere left to go. It is the look on the face of the cartoon dog Scooby-Doo when he recognizes that the best-laid plans of his ghost-hunting human friends are about to go catastrophically awry.
But, unlike Scooby-Doo, it seems unlikely that Liz Truss will be able to neutralize the threat of a raging economic crisis by slipping on a banana skin, tripping down a flight of stairs, and falling from a great height onto it. Though, having said that, it might represent her best chance of stunning the financial markets into submission. She has, after all, with extraordinary alacrity assumed her predecessor’s mantle as chief clown of the UK’s peculiar brand of slapstick politics.
Last Friday, with her authority in tatters and her fledgling administration already facing what the BBC's political editor called "open questions about its imminent end", Liz Truss summoned her Chancellor back to the UK from a meeting of finance ministers in the United States. The media were quickly full of reports that he would lose his job, and that the Prime Minister’s office wasn't denying it.
In a humiliating admission of the failings of her flagship policy package, she then ditched her plans on corporation tax, after having fired her closest and most senior ally, a decision which may yet rebound on her with unwanted consequences. The pound fell sharply once more in response to this latest news of chaos at the heart of government.
Meanwhile, as she continued to insist she would weather this storm, reports swiftly emerged that a group of top Tories were preparing to call on Liz Truss to resign.
One can hardly imagine a more disastrous first month in Downing Street. Even a supersized pack of Scooby Snacks won't put this right.