Seldom do I agree with Jacob Rees-Mogg, but I thought he was right when he argued in January that the UK now has an essentially presidential system of government. Because the electorate increasingly votes for a leader, not a party or constituency MP, “the mandate is personal… so my view is that a change of leader requires a general election”, he said.
Rees-Mogg deployed that argument for a purpose. He wanted to dissuade Tory MPs from ousting Boris Johnson by suggesting they might trigger a general election and lose their seats.
My purpose is a little different. It is to suggest that while Liz Truss, as the new leader of parliament’s largest party, certainly has a narrow constitutional right to succeed Johnson as prime minister, she has little moral right to do so – and still less to pursue the hardcore libertarian agenda that she outlined over the past seven weeks.
It is a statement of the obvious to say that only Johnson, with his con man’s patter and charisma, could have stitched together the improbable coalition of traditional Home County Tories and disgruntled Red Wall voters with which he won such a “stonking” majority at the 2019 general election. The electorate manifestly awarded a mandate to him, not to any other Conservative politician. That mandate is not, or should not, be transferable. Truss cannot, or should not, simply inherit it.
Indeed opinion polls suggest she enjoys precious little popular support outside the ranks of right-wing Tory activists. The general public preferred Penny Mordaunt to Truss in the early rounds of the leadership contest, and Rishi Sunak in the final run-off. Just 21 per cent “like” her, according to YouGov. A mere 12 per cent think she will make a good or great prime minister.
Nor, for that matter, did Truss make any obvious effort to court or even address the general public during the seemingly interminable leadership campaign, preferring to pander to her party’s base.
She refused to give in-depth interviews to the BBC’s Nick Robinson or Channel 4’s Andrew Neil even though she was auditioning for the job of prime minister. The only such interview she did give, before sitting down with Laura Kuenssberg on the BBC yesterday (4 September) after the contest had finished, was to GB News and its tiny right-wing audience.
Truss has no popular mandate, but nor does she have the next best thing: a mandate from the Conservative Party’s 357 elected MPs. Just 50 of them – less than a seventh of the parliamentary party – voted for her in the first round. Only 113 – less than a third – voted for her in the fifth and final round when she beat Mordaunt by a mere eight votes and trailed Sunak by 24 votes. More than 200 have failed to back her. She is the first Conservative to become prime minister without the support of a majority of her parliamentary party.
The only mandate Truss does have comes from the approximately 175,000 members of the Conservative Party – the same bunch that imposed Johnson on the country.
We know this tiny self-selecting group, comprising barely 0.3 per cent of the electorate, is predominantly white, ageing, male, wealthy, southern and Europhobic, but that’s all. We don’t know the names of these people who have now chosen two prime ministers in a row. We don’t know exactly how many there are. We don’t know how many are foreign (or Russian). Some may be below voting age. Others may even be fictitious.
Tortoise Media has waged a determined campaign to find out exactly who these people are and how they are vetted. It has even registered a tortoise and the late Margaret Thatcher as members to make its point. But the Conservative Party has failed to yield to demands for openness and transparency.
Given all of the above, one might think that Truss would seek to govern through consensus to win the public’s confidence. She may yet, but there was little sign of her trying to do so during the leadership campaign. Indeed, unlike Sunak, she seemed bent only on courting the party’s ideologues.
The centrepiece of her leadership campaign was her dubious, controversial and extremely risky assertion that tax cuts will spark growth and become self-financing. Heaven help the already beleaguered British economy if she’s wrong – and most experts think she is. Even Michael Gove and Dominic Raab, her former cabinet colleagues, have accused her of “taking a holiday from reality” and writing an “election suicide note”.
At the same time this self-styled “disrupter” seemingly declared war on everything and everyone. She denounced Treasury “orthodoxy”. She promised to review the Bank of England’s remit. She hinted at a “bonfire of workers’ rights”. She vowed to jettison the Northern Ireland protocol, which puts a customs border between Britain and Ireland, because “there’s only one thing the EU understands and that is strength”.
She accused Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon of being an “attention seeker”, and Wales’s Mark Drakeford of being a “low-energy version of Jeremy Corbyn”. She refused to say whether France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, was a friend or foe. She dismissed help for the poor at a time of extreme economic hardship as “handouts”. She vowed to dilute Britain’s programme to fight climate change. She made a scapegoat of the media.
All of the above would amount to hard-line doctrinaire positions even for a prime minister with a resounding electoral mandate, but Truss has none.
Love him or loathe him, the British people had to accept that Johnson was their legitimately elected prime minister. The same cannot be said of Truss. She is not my Prime Minister. She is not our Prime Minister. She is the Prime Minister only of a tiny, secretive group of highly unrepresentative voters who have chosen ideological purity over pragmatism, and knowingly awarded power to the candidate the public wanted least.
She has been imposed on a sullen, resentful country through a distortion of democracy. There is no groundswell of excitement at her victory, no sense of eager anticipation – just a weary resignation and quiet, impotent anger. Given the gravity of the multiple crises Johnson has left behind him, one has to hope Truss succeeds, but she will have little good will or public support as she embarks on her premiership.
If she had any sense of decency, she would heed Rees-Mogg’s wise words and call an immediate general election. She won’t, of course, because she and her party would be destroyed.