“What does he know that we don’t?” we all kept asking ourselves. Zac Goldsmith’s decision to build his 2016 campaign for the London mayoralty around racial dogwhistles seemed to go against everything we knew about both the capital’s electorate and its pride in its own diversity. So what was he playing at? Did his campaign have private polling, showing that there was more white nativism in London than anyone had previously guessed?
If he did, I hope he asked for his money back: Goldsmith lost to Sadiq Khan by one of the biggest margins ever seen in a London mayoral election. The answer to the question “what does he know that we don’t?”, turned out to be: nothing. The most generous interpretation of the campaign was that Goldsmith was really bad at politics.
This episode has come to mind as I’ve watched the Tory commentariat try to sell us on Liz Truss. “Ignore the awkward manner and terrible public speaking voice,” we’re told, “she’s a surprisingly canny operator, who Labour underestimates at its peril.” Maybe so. But I can’t help but notice that she’s come to power in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, a near unknown whose most famous quote that’s not about pork markets is the one telling British workers that they’re lazy. And she’s done little in her first couple of weeks in power to show she’s in touch with the public mood. Quite the reverse.
A reminder of a few of the policies with which Truss and her team are hoping to make a good first impression. First up there’s the decision to end the ban on fracking, which could blight the land with air, water and noise pollution. You wouldn’t necessarily know this, however, because the only thing anyone is talking about is its potential to cause actual earthquakes.
The Business Secretary is not entirely wrong when he says a tremor magnitude of 2.5 is not that big a deal – but if you wanted to send someone out to make that case, and call those who disagree Luddites, would Jacob Rees-Mogg – the said business secretary – be your first choice? This could, incidentally, affect as many as 94 Conservative-held seats.
Then there are the moves to shore up the UK’s wobbling economy. The reversal of the 1.25 per cent rise in National Insurance, first introduced by Rishi Sunak earlier this year, may prove popular – but whether that will be enough to counteract the less voter-friendly decisions to slash taxes for the ultra rich and uncap bankers’ bonuses remains to be seen. The promise to cut stamp duty, a tax paid mainly by people who can afford big houses in the south east, is surely about as likely to be electoral catnip in the Red Wall as fracking.
On the energy crisis, the government has capped bills, but the methods by which the cap is funded – by borrowing – suggests that the costs will have to be paid back by the public. Because a windfall tax on energy firm’s profits is absolutely off the table. Meanwhile, the government has promised that GP appointments will be available within two weeks, which may have the unfortunate side effect of telling the large part of the electorate who haven’t tried to see a GP recently that currently they probably couldn’t.
Finally, just in case any small sliver of the electorate remained on side, the government has decided to tell the British public where to shove their famous love of animals, too, and will move ahead with plans to abandon long-proposed bans on the import of fur and foie gras. Rees-Mogg at Business was one thing: must we also now worry that the environment department has somehow fallen into the hands of Cruella de Vil?
The Prime Minister has said that she’s happy to be unpopular. This is a comfortable enough line to take when you’re a Liberal Democrat, or a junior minister, or fighting an internal Tory leadership race in which the most morally abhorrent positions are often those that win the most votes with that particular subsection of voters. It’s a harder position to maintain when you’re a Prime Minister who must face the electorate in little more than two years.
Even if Truss is happy to watch her polling collapse for some reason, it’s not clear that her backbenchers will be quite so sanguine. She wasn’t their first choice, even before she alienated a large chunk of the parliamentary party through a botched reshuffle; she doesn’t have Boris Johnson’s record of past electoral success to fall back on. If she keeps introducing voter-repellent policies like these, she will not merely likely lose the next election – she may not survive long enough to fight it.
All of which raises the question: what does she know that we don’t? Is there polling showing that the public all secretly hate animals and love earthquakes? Does she think she’s going to lose anyway, and so is merely trying to push through as many of her favoured policies as possible on her way to the scrapyard?
Or does she think the next few years are going to be so bad that it’s probably in her party’s interest that Labour is left carrying the can?
Does she actually just want to lose?