Never, in any of our lifetimes, has Britain felt so adrift, so rudderless, so fragile.
In a single week we have lost the longest-serving and – probably – most beloved queen in our islands’ history, a potent symbol of continuity and stability, and gained a new prime minister who is lacking in public support, scornful of old orthodoxies and prepared to gamble mightily with the nation’s parlous finances.
To be fair to be Liz Truss, to have the monarch die on your third day in power is an appalling misfortune. The loss has completely eclipsed her first week in office – a period when she would normally have been putting her stamp on government, commanding the country’s full attention and setting the tone of her premiership. Nor has the prime ministerial novice handled this cataclysmic event in the nation’s history badly. At the various state events since she has appeared nervous but suitably sombre and dignified, and she has made no false steps.
Despite knowing that Elizabeth II was dying, Truss remained admirably calm when announcing her energy package to the Commons on Thursday (8 September). Her address to the nation that evening was well received, even if it lacked any memorable phrases (such as Tony Blair’s “the people’s princess”) that really captured the national mood and was suffused with Johnsonian jingoism (you could never imagine the Queen boasting of “the magnificent history of our great country”).
It was Truss’s misfortune to have her tribute to the Queen eclipsed by both Boris Johnson’s speech from the backbenches (a timely reminder to restive Tory backbenchers of his rhetorical talent) and by Emmanuel Macron’s wonderfully graceful and generous eulogy (just last month, Truss disgracefully replied “the jury’s out” when asked if the French president was a friend or foe).
But if Truss has passed muster in the ceremonial side of her new job as the nation’s leader, her political performance has already provided cause for alarm.
She inexplicably chose to begin her inaugural speech on the steps of No 10 with a tribute to Johnson, the most destructive and divisive prime minister in recent British history. What a provocative message to send to the substantial majority of Britons who abhorred the man. Maybe she had to thank her predecessor, but why did her advisers not tell her to do so at the end of her speech, and not in her very first words?
Then came her selection of a new cabinet. Having been imposed on a disgruntled country by a mere 81,000 Tory party members (many fewer than expected), and lacking the backing even of a majority of her parliamentary party, you might have thought she would seize the chance to heal wounds and reach out to her critics in both the parliamentary party and the nation.
On the contrary, she vengefully sacked all those who had backed her leadership rival, Rishi Sunak, regardless of their ability, and promoted her friends and ideological soulmates. She excluded the likes of Grant Shapps, Greg Clark and George Eustice, who will now menace her from the backbenches. She appointed Kwasi Kwarteng, a fellow co-author of the free market tract Britannia Unchained, the new Chancellor. She made her friend and karaoke partner, Thérèse Coffey, Health Secretary. And putting the net zero-hating Jacob Rees-Mogg in charge of energy? Well, heaven help us.
Kwarteng proceeded swiftly to sack Tom Scholar, the Treasury’s highly regarded permanent secretary, in a move that has caused widespread dismay within the civil service and beyond, as did Truss’s removal of Stephen Lovegrove, the national security adviser, and numerous other Downing Street civil servants whom she inherited from Johnson.
The sackings were seen within Westminster as an ideological purge, a further politicisation of the civil service at a time of extreme turbulence when the victims’ accumulated wisdom and experience might have been invaluable. They also occurred in a week in which the civil service – along with the staff of Buckingham Palace – has amply proved its worth with its flawless handling of the royal succession.
And then on Thursday the arch free-marketeer now resident in No 10 unveiled her plan to shield Britain from soaring energy prices – a plan that one seasoned political observer described to me as “the most socialist policy a Conservative government has ever introduced”. It consisted, he added, of “price controls of a sort last seen under Harold Wilson”.
Having scorned “handouts” during the leadership contest, Truss outlined the biggest handout in British history. It is unclear how much it will cost, though the final bill is likely to be more than £150bn. It will do nothing to curb energy consumption. It helps the rich as much as the poor. And it will be paid for by all of us – not the energy companies who have made £170bn in windfall profits thanks to rising prices since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Truss was widely reckoned to have produced the best soundbite at her first Prime Minister’s Questions last week. “There is nothing new about a Labour leader who is calling for more tax rises,” she told Keir Starmer when he called for an extension of the windfall tax on the energy companies. But in the long run Starmer’s riposte, alluding to Truss’s plan for corporate tax cuts, is likely to prove more damaging: “How on earth does she think now is the right time to protect Shell’s profits and give Amazon a tax break?”
And what, for that matter, has happened to “levelling up”? Truss mentioned that laudable but unfulfilled Johnsonian ambition, and one of the central planks of the last Conservative manifesto, not once in her inaugural speech – nor at any time since.
The Queen’s death could not have come at a worse time for Truss, though it has at least diverted attention from much of the above. I wonder, however, whether it has also changed the national mood in a way that will hurt her.
It was the Queen who truly represented the “Global Britain” that Truss constantly invokes. It was her quiet leadership, her painstaking diplomacy, her relentless emphasis on conciliation and building relationships, that did so much to preserve the Commonwealth and maintain Britain’s international standing in the world – as the worldwide grief at her death demonstrates. She was the embodiment of “soft power”.
By contrast the narrow, boastful, flag-waving nationalism favoured by Truss and her fellow right-wing Tories, their constant picking of silly fights with our former partners and allies in Europe, looks petty, nasty and ultimately self-defeating. “The only thing the EU understands is strength,” Truss declared during the leadership contest. Elizabeth II would never have said such a thing.
[See also: Liz Truss and the cost of winning]