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22 December 2021

Paul Mason

Labour may have more to fear from Liz Truss than Rishi Sunak

A Truss premiership would be a Thatcher tribute act, but tribute bands are popular.

“Apart from Boris, I cannot think of a single politician who has a more visceral and raw instinct for politics than Liz,” said a friend of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss last week. As Boris Johnson flounders in a moral swamp of his own making, the question in Toryland is who will take over in 2022.

Truss has been quick out of the traps. Last weekend, while other cabinet rebels couched their opposition to new Covid restrictions in terms of their ministerial briefs, Truss simply positioned herself as a libertarian Tory and then had her allies brief the press.

Her clearest rival is fellow Covid rebel Rishi Sunak. The Chancellor has been burnishing his image since he first set foot in a ministry, getting his digitised signature on specially designed Twitter cards, and posing as a waiter during his ill-fated superspreader giveaway “Eat Out To Help Out”.

While Truss chose to grandstand Thatcher-style on a British tank in Estonia, Sunak devoted valuable ministerial time to Silicon Valley – for a “long-planned trip” that was supposed to dovetail with a (presumably) equally “long-planned” holiday. 

Sunak is as demonstrably phoney as the hoodies that bankers have to wear on corporate away days. Truss is the real thing: a political chameleon who will shamelessly channel Thatcher just as relentlessly as Johnson channels Winston Churchill.

There’s a long way to go, but as they enter the winter break, Labour’s strategists have to ponder this question: how would the party cope with a different Tory leader? The first thing to consider is the process. For the Tories, managing the politics of succession won’t be easy. Because, as I wrote last week, conservatism is being pulled in three directions: towards a repeat of fiscal austerity, towards the abandonment of Covid restrictions, and towards an ever more self-destructive Brexit, which requires an interventionist state and higher public spending to soften the economic blow.

It would be possible, in theory, to find a first-rank Tory politician to embody all three instincts, but not likely.  

Under Johnson, levelling up, it seems, has become coded into the public consciousness as a kind of bribe for white working-class people. Withdraw the bribe, hike the bus fares, crater the local council’s budget once again and that’s the end of neo-Toryism in the Red Wall – especially after the parade of revelations about lockdown-breaking in Whitehall.

Likewise, there is little prospect of imposing a new austerity programme while keeping the current Tory voting coalition together. Voters understand that, amid the panic of March 2020, the Bank of England suddenly found sums equivalent to what the Treasury needed and, hey presto, the national debt has now surged to more than £2trn without the sky falling in. With Vladimir Putin frothing against Nato, and six million people on the NHS waiting list for hospital treatment, it will be a brave Conservative chancellor who promises to slash defence and healthcare spending, or to raise taxes higher than Sunak already has done.

When it comes to libertarianism, the Conservatives know they are playing with electoral fire. You cannot run a libertarian state in a pandemic. And while Oxbridge still churns out free-market libertarians faster than Ede & Ravenscroft can sell them dinner jackets, everyday life makes working-class conservatives natural authoritarians.

They want the toughest possible sentences, including, as the Tory MP for Blackpool South, Scott Benton, recently told me on BBC Politics Live, the return of the death penalty. They want the refugee boats pushed back, literally. They want more police on the streets, more arrests of drug dealers and burglars. 

[see also: Boris Johnson’s woes spell danger for Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss]

And they despise the lockdown breakers. When spectators at a major darts tournament spontaneously chant “stand up if you hate Boris” and Leeds United fans deliver an even more direct, Anglo-Saxon rebuke (in a video viewed nearly 900,000 times), you begin to understand the limited appeal of American-style libertarianism here.

If a leadership contest does break out after Christmas, Sunak will try to square the circle by combining austerity with social liberalism. Truss meanwhile looks likely to combine libertarianism with hard Brexit – meaning a continuation of Johnson’s economic model, which relies entirely on debt and central bank money creation. Coming through the middle, the vestigial tradition of liberal conservatism represented by Jeremy Hunt, may try to stage a comeback, but he looks unlikely to succeed given how heavily the party has been colonised by ex-Ukip members at base level.

So the first challenge for Labour would be to frame the process of Tory succession in a negative light. That is harder than it looks. So long as Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP remain at war with each other, the electorate sees the Tories as, if not the “natural” party of government, then the likely party of government. It matters who leads it and, as with Strictly Come Dancing or The Great British Bake Off, even the disinterested can spectate, place bets and back their favourite.

“Tories bicker while the NHS burns” would be Labour’s natural line of attack. But the easy counter to this, given any contest would automatically depose Johnson, is that it’s the outgoing Prime Minister, misled by “Carrie Antoinette”, who caused all this and the Tory rivals are doing their public duty, saving Britain from the chaos.

In-office Tory leadership contests are not new. Theresa May replaced Cameron; Johnson deposed May – and in each case the inciting incident was Brexit. It has become par for the course for a Tory prime minister to be ousted by a rival faction, leaving progressive voters and their hapless parliamentary representatives merely to spectate.

So Labour’s best bet may be to sit out a leadership contest: to look competent, like a government-in-waiting, and to go on voting for the public health measures a wounded Johnson has to force through parliament with opposition votes. Labour must formulate a clear policy offer for the May 2022 council elections – still seen by some in the party as make-or-break time for Keir Starmer.

When it comes to fighting Johnson’s replacement, it matters less who they are but how their project is defined. While Truss is the figurehead of neo-Thatcherism, there are others who could do the same job. One is the trade minister Penny Mordaunt, who is at 40-to-1 in the betting with the bookies and recently delivered a bizarre speech to US conservatives, comparing Brexit to war and demanding a kind of political Lend-Lease from the Republican right. Another is Priti Patel, who is only five points above Mordaunt in the bookies.

Gender is salient here. These are women who have survived and prospered in the leery late night man’s world of Conservatism. They could do what both previous female Tory premieres have done, and what their male counterparts find difficult to do: construct alliances. Even now, Truss is said to be holding “fizz with Liz” sessions with back benchers, at an exclusive London club, to build the networks needed to govern the party.

A Sunak premiership would be altogether different. The Chancellor networks through money. That he was caught amid an unpublicised “long-planned business trip” to California when the Omicron crisis first hit is telling. He would have no problem mobilising the hedge fund managers and the outsourcers and the dodgy billionaires who populate the top echelons of Toryism, but he would struggle to construct a political alliance around Osbornism 2.0.

For this reason he would have to reach out – both among the electorate and within the party – to the socially liberal factions which, at present, remain cowed and under-represented. If Jeremy Hunt (or a proxy) were to make a decent first-round showing, then a Sunak-Hunt alliance might be what Labour finds itself up against. 

Frankly, I think Starmer, now backed by a fairly capable team of shadow cabinet ministers from the Labour right (such as Rachel Reeves and Wes Streeting), could beat Sunak in an election and certainly better him at the despatch box. But I am not sure he could beat a Conservative Party machine united around Truss, Patel or Mordaunt. We would be dealing here with a Thatcher tribute act, but tribute bands are popular. 

It’s the great self-inflicted wound of Labour – from far left to extreme centre – that people on the front bench who can wow a crowd, improvising one-liners that resonate with voters from Essex to Cumbria, are so rare. Those who can do it – Stella Creasy is one, Andy Burnham another – are always made bit-part players in the great game of influence played by backroom Labour behemoths.

As Labour MPs contemplate becoming spectators in a three-month Tory Punch & Judy show, what I want most of all is for them to develop what Truss has: this “visceral and raw instinct for politics”. It means knowing what people are angry about – in the real world, not the politically manicured world of trade unions, NGOs and think tanks – and what their hopes are, and to learn to express these things in words you might hear down the pub, and not from an automated railway announcement.

[see also: Can Liz Truss, Boris Johnson’s “deliverer”, become his successor?]

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