What do we owe to Truss?
October 13, 2022.
It used to be said that loyalty is the secret weapon of the Conservative Party. But that went out the window when Margaret Thatcher was defenestrated in 1990. Ever since, “treachery with a smile on its face” has been the Tory way.
If you doubt that, then consider the fates of the eight leaders since Thatcher’s downfall. There’s only been one — Michael Howard — whose time in the job wasn’t disrupted by concerted internal opposition. Three leaders (Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa May and Boris Johnson) were ousted half-way through a parliament — and David Cameron resigned after losing a referendum his party forced him into. Of course, the rebels had their reasons — some of them good ones; but no one can look over the last 32 years and pretend that our leaders have enjoyed the unstinting support of their colleagues.
So, as we stand on the brink of losing yet another leader, we ought to ask how much loyalty is owed to Liz Truss. On the face of it, she deserves a chance. After all, she was elected by a margin of 20,000 votes not two months ago. In a party that can appear ungovernable, her removal would mark a new low.
Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that a new leader would bring stability. As any historian of the Roman Empire could tell you, disloyalty breeds disloyalty. Having deposed the Nero-esque figure of Boris Johnson, we now risk our own Year of the Four Emperors
And yet unquestioning loyalty is not the answer either. Whatever our swivel-eyed opponents might say, we are not fascists — there is no room for führerprinzip in the Conservative Party.
Loyalty is therefore conditional. The first condition is that those in charge of the party must exemplify the loyalty they expect to receive. If they bicker and backstab among themselves they should not be surprised if others join the game.
In that respect, the present leadership has got off to a poor start. For instance, Liz Truss made a point of telling the media that scrapping the 45p rate of income tax was Kwasi Kwarteng’s decision. This was followed by an insider briefing that the policy was Chris Philp’s idea — a shameless attempt to blame the Chief Sec.
Or take the briefing against Michael Gove in the Sunday Times. With blatant hypocrisy and obvious inaccuracy, a nameless source accused him of having “stabbed the PM in the back”. Admittedly, Gove had a go at the Government during conference week, but it was the most upfront of criticisms. In any case, Gove is not part of the government — unlike the Cabinet, several of whom seem to think they’re contestants in a leadership race, not ministers bound by collective responsibility.
Another condition of loyalty is competence. A leader must be up to the job. For instance, crashing the economy is a definite no-no. The defenders of the mini-budget complain that it wasn’t a crash, but a flash (in the pan). They have half-a-point: the pound has recovered since its precipitous drop and, as for bond values, the Bank of England has only had to deploy a small part of its £65 billion war chest. The UK can hardly be portrayed as the ‘sick man of Europe’ when almost every economy is ailing — which, by the way, is the real reason why the markets are so nervous right now.
However, that being the case, why did the Truss government go out of its way to surprise those jumpy traders? Why did the Chancellor pull so many rabbits from his hat? Why was the Office of Budget Responsibility bundled into a Whitehall cupboard and not let out? And never mind sacking Sir Tom Scholar (a Treasury panjandrum), why didn’t Downing Street make better use of John Glen — who, until July, had been the longest-serving Economic Secretary? Didn’t they realise that a minister for the City who knew his brief inside-out would have been a vital asset?
Short of declaring leaves to be legal tender, the government did everything it could to bring this crisis upon itself. And it’s not over yet. The markets still expect to be told how the tax cut bonanza is to be paid for. But, as we know, many MPs — including Cabinet ministers — are opposed to big ticket savings like a real-terms benefits freeze. The same applies to the slash-and-burn deregulatory agenda.
One might ask whether the Conservative parliamentary party has any right to frustrate the will of a Conservative Prime Minister. While the occasional backbench rebellion is tolerable, up-ending an entire programme of government is disloyalty of a different order. Or is it?
The democratic mandate on which Conservative MPs were elected was the 2019 manifesto — the agenda of a pro-Brexit, but One Nation, Tory government. If Liz Truss chooses to diverge from that vision — for instance by exacerbating inequality through tax cuts for the rich, or cancelling key investments in national infrastructure, or opening our borders to cheap migrant labour, or allowing farmers to wipe-out what’s left of our wildlife — then she is forcing MPs to choose between the promises they made to her and those they made to the British people. Many will side with the voters — for which I can’t blame them.
Aware of this threat, Downing Street has apparently threatened rebellious MPs with the loss of the whip. It’s a tactic that worked well for Johnson before the 2019 election; Truss will hope it does the same for her now. Except that the circumstances are completely different. In 2019, Johnson had to convince Torysceptic Leavers that he was serious about getting Brexit done. Truss, however, doesn’t need to persuade anyone that she is what she claims to be — it is all too apparent that the voters believe her.
As for persuading rebellious MPs to toe the party line, the threat of deselection is somewhat irrelevant when Labour has a 20-to-30 point lead in the opinion polls. Even those MPs with seats safe enough to withstand a Labour landslide may consider a decade in opposition to be a poor reward for selling-out.
And thus Truss fails to satisfy the most basic condition of loyalty, which is electoral viability. The Conservatives did not become the natural party of government by tolerating loser leaders. Violating the other conditions of loyalty — internal discipline, competent governance and having a democratic mandate — further undermines the Prime Minister’s position.
It should be said that, eventually, every leader fails on one or more of these tests. However, Truss’s special achievement is to have flunked all of them in the space of a few weeks.
Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
© Peter Franklin / via ConservativeHome 2022
Image via The Independent