The Debatable Land #30: Who governs Britain?
Not Liz Truss, that's who.
James Carville, the Cajun political strategist, once said: “I used to think that if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the pope or as a .400 baseball hitter. But no I would like to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.”
Well, as we have discovered in recent days, ain’t that the truth?
None of us have seen anything like this before. Never before has a new government set its own credibility ablaze in the same style with which Liz Truss has poured petrol onto whatever remained of her party’s reputation for fiscal soundness and financial security. Tear up all those Tory attacks on Labour, for they will not be needed for some time to come. There is no escaping this and while a change of prime minister might purchase some temporary space for the Conservative party it can now only delay a reckoning that must be as severe as it is overdue.
Still, the days of Boris Johnson - days which necessarily came to an end, you will recall, because he had forfeited the people’s trust and then that of his parliamentary colleagues - seem to belong to some earlier age entirely, one now lost in the fog of time passed. It requires some effort to remember there were good reasons for his departure and these remain valid notwithstanding all that has happened since.
The question “Who governs Britain?” remains a useful one, however, and this afternoon it has one obvious answer: Not Liz Truss. The prime minister may be in office but she is not in power. As with many aspects of this fiasco, the ghosts of previous crises are unavoidable. After little more than a month in Downing Street, Truss sleeps with Ted Heath and with John Major. The gilt and currency markets are her miners and every weekday is a Black one.
Sacking Kwasi Kwarteng will not buy a lot of time. Like so much else, this was priced in before it happened. And, besides, Kwarteng cannot credibly be considered the problem when his crime was to put forward the prime minister’s agenda. She was not betrayed by her chancellor; he was merely following the script.
That was, if you remember, “Move fast and break things”. This was to be a moment of Great Disruption and the value of an idea was to be measured by the extent it could be considered capital-R Radical. What larks!
Except it doesn’t seem so very funny any more. Truss might be correct to think that Britain is a place in which it is too difficult - and too expensive - to get things done but this remains a conservative place in which hard-won perquisites are tenaciously defended. Undoing things to which voters and interest groups alike have become accustomed is not easy.
The blessed Margaret knew that. She generally moved more cautiously than her reputation suggests. It was only after her third election victory that Thatcher felt the sweet winds of liberation and the thrill of near-unfettered power. And that, you will recall, was the moment at which the wheels began to fall off.
Prior to that she was often tentative and equally willing to reverse cause when prudence - and politics - demanded it. Her first cabinet was not one of true believers. She was, in fact, a minority within it. Few of her colleagues were truly “One of Us”. The contrast with Truss is, again, illuminating.
Jeremy Hunt is the new chancellor of the exchequer because, whatever else you might say about him, few people look at Hunt and think “There’s a maniac”. He has been summoned aboard to steady a sinking ship. This task may well prove beyond him but it is a measure of the crisis afflicting Truss’s government that he has even been asked in the first place.
For Hunt is the repudiation - by reputation, anyway - of Trussism. He is asked to save the prime minister and making the request is a significant moment. It marks the point at which Truss’s government nears its end before it ever really had a chance to live. Hunt is the master now. Any revival in fortunes will be credited to him, not the prime minister. She is premier in name only: PINO.
Henceforth her initiatives and agenda will require Treasury clearance and if you think the Treasury has not been emboldened by recent events you misunderestimate the Treasury’s sense of where power does - and its view, must - lie. Nothing significant will happen without running through Number 11 first.
There is, to be sure, an argument that this is always, at least in part, the case. But it is even more so now and with this difference: there is no joint project or common cause between Numbers 10 and 11. The prime minister is a hostage inside her own ministry.
Not that this will save her for the logic of Kwarteng’s departure inevitably points to Truss’s dismissal too. He was following orders; she was setting them. If the orders proved disastrous logic demands Truss take a long walk off her own quarterdeck.
At that point it becomes difficult to see how a new government could be installed without a general election. As a constitutional matter there might be no need for such a thing - someone might be able to command a majority in the House - but ethically, even morally, matters will be arranged rather differently.
In one sense - if only, perhaps, one - there is something salutary about this. It is that warnings about big-ticket economic issues - interest rates, the cost of government borrowing and so on - are not always questions of “scaremongering” or “Project Fear”. They are real, live, significant, matters of considerable importance. That is something to be remembered - and applied to other purveyors of political and financial fantasy - in the future.
In the meantime, there is a fierce amount of wreckage in a government. Truss may think she can fix this but, if so, this is merely the latest in a series of delusions that, unkind folk might think, have done quite enough damage already.
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'Few people look at Hunt and think “There’s a maniac”.' Great piece.
Without doubt Truss has to go. Sunak should have been PM and the failure to make him this will see the total downfall of the Tories. On the plus side a Labour government will put Sturgeon’s plans to hell.