The rise and fall of Liz Truss


After Kwasi Kwarteng, Liz Truss’s chancellor of the Exchequer, had been shoved onto his sword in the wake of financial markets’ reaction to a “mini-budget” saturated supposedly with “free-market fundamentalism,” there was always a high probability that Truss would be looking at an early departure from 10 Downing Street. Once it became clear that not only had Truss lost her chancellor but also control of the Conservative Party’s agenda, a high probability became a certainty. Her authority was gone, a fact that given the gladiatorial nature of the House of Commons guaranteed humiliation after humiliation.

Meanwhile, her approval ratings had fallen to 10 percent, a total below even Prince Andrew’s. Sometimes you fall and cannot get up. Tory MPs can read the polls, and the polls show that the Conservatives are heading for electoral catastrophe. Under the circumstances, they realized that they had nothing to lose by losing Truss and that the sooner they did so, the better. Their task now is to stave off pressure for an early election, and hope that the roughly two years between now and the next general election will buy them enough time to win back enough support to avoid a wipeout or — you never know — something better than that.

That will be an uphill struggle. Voters will remember Truss’s premiership, the shortest in British history, for far longer than it lasted. They are unlikely to be forgiving. A reputation for economic competence has traditionally been one of the Tories’ strongest selling points. For now, that’s in ruins. That means that the Conservatives will be blamed much more than they should for the hard times that — given the fight against inflation being fought by many central banks and, of course, Europe’s energy crunch — are on the way. It will make matters even worse if they are perceived as being a party divided, something that British voters detest.

As it is, it won’t be easy for the Conservatives to rebuild the coalition that took them to an impressive victory in 2019. This was effectively the result of traditional Conservatives’ being joined by former Labour voters won over by the prospect of (finally) getting Brexit “done” and Boris Johnson’s ebullient public persona. By the next election, Brexit will be ancient history and so, probably, will Boris Johnson: There are clear signs that he will throw his hat in the ring to succeed Truss, but he would probably struggle to secure enough nominations from Tory MPs (he would need 100, a deliberately high bar) to have his name put forward for an online vote of which the results will be known next Friday. That high bar is designed to narrow the field and reduce the perceptions of the Conservatives as a divided party. It may do the trick. The prospect of an electoral massacre ought to, as the phrase goes, concentrate minds wonderfully, but, not for the first time in his career, Johnson may be emerging as a wild card.

We will wait to see which candidates emerge. The Conservatives would do well to choose a candidate who has the best chance of bringing the party together — a statement of the obvious which, such are the times, needs saying. Staving off (or at least minimizing) a Labour victory must be the top priority. The idea that, under the leadership of the reassuringly dull Keir Starmer, Labour can be trusted is nonsense, as, incidentally, is the notion that the Tories would be improved by a period in the wilderness.

As for the policies that the Conservatives should follow under their new leader, there was plenty of merit in the stronger tilt toward free-market principles contained in the budget package put forward by Truss and Kwarteng, but no merit at all in the way that it was prepared, packaged, or presented. In the last week the Conservatives have shown some signs of confusing a tactical imperative — restoring calm — with longer-term strategy. For traumatized Tories, to return to governing as they were risks perpetuating the subpar economic performance of the last decade, something that will not help them or the country. But, in the (unfortunately) unlikely event that they are still willing to turn to a more Thatcherite approach, they would do well to remember that the Iron Lady understood the virtues of incrementalism.

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