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1 September 2022

Can the Tories kick their addiction to delusional thinking?

Just like with Boris Johnson in 2019, Conservative members are looking for someone who will tell them it’s all going to be fine.

By David Gauke

On Wednesday night (31 August), the two candidates to be prime minister were asked if they could rule out energy rationing over the winter. One of them – the one who is going to win – said yes. No one wants energy rationing but… really? Regardless of the severity of the winter, the actions of Vladimir Putin and the pressures on energy supply?

The answer was characteristic of her campaign. Hope triumphs over fear, optimism over pessimism. This is the approach taken by Liz Truss in her leadership campaign, and it appears to be working.

The contest is occurring at a time of falling living standards and an economy in (or, at least, close to) recession. Winter is set to see a large proportion of the population impoverished. Public services are under strain, industrial relations are fractious, the pound is weak, business investment dismal, the UK’s post-Brexit trading performance grim. Of relevance to her rationing answer, the country’s energy supplies may be insufficient.

If, however, one was to listen to Truss, all this talk is unnecessary and self-defeating. Britain’s best days lie ahead of it. Low taxes and deregulation can deliver growth. We must avoid “talking ourselves into a recession”, she has repeatedly told Conservative activists.

Criticising her plans by, for example, highlighting the risks they pose to inflation, interest rates and the sustainability of the public finances are dismissed as being representative of an old, failed orthodoxy. Caution about future prospects is characterised as accepting decline and talking the country down. Positivity is patriotic.

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In this sense, Truss is very much the Boris Johnson continuity candidate. Johnson won the Conservative Party leadership in 2019 on the basis that he would be able to achieve incredible things (specifically, leave the EU by 31 October) even if he had no idea how he was going to do it. His speech outside 10 Downing Street on the day he became Prime Minister condemned the “doomsters” and “gloomsters” and promised a bright future. He fought the 2019 general election promising to increase spending, keep taxes low and deliver on his oven-ready Brexit deal. Even when confronted with an appalling pandemic, he could never resist for long the temptation to declare that we would soon be out of the woods. We were going to “turn the tide in 12 weeks” he told the country in March 2020; Christmas 2020 was going to be saved. We didn’t and it wasn’t.

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Johnson’s optimism is intrinsic to his personality. He is a people-pleaser wanting to tell people good news (rather than the truth). He also believes that good things come from positive thoughts. An optimistic leader can instil self-confidence in a nation and enable it once again to walk tall, in the same way Ronald Reagan revitalised the US in the 1980s.

Truss is a little different. Whereas Johnson believes that his ebullient personality has magical qualities that can solve most problems, Truss thinks it is her policies that will bring extraordinary benefits. It is a less narcissistic approach but still involves a bias towards optimism and the dismissal of those who point out the risks. The Conservative Party members, evidently, are lapping it up. Just like 2019 when matters looked bleak for both the party and country, here comes someone who tells them it is all going to be fine. It might not be truthful but at least it is reassuring.

[See also: Is Keir Starmer ready to take on Liz Truss?]

Johnson did deliver both Brexit and a general election victory and, for those reasons, Conservative members appear to have few regrets about their choice in 2019 – even if the Brexit deal may be one that the government has spent two years trying to unpick and Johnson never knew what to do with his majority.

There is, however, a price to be paid for the Conservative Party’s tendency to favour wishful thinking over truth-telling. The lack of realism results in a poor analysis of the nation’s circumstances which, in turn, results in inaccurate conclusions. The absence of openness with the electorate as to the challenges means that the public is unprepared: the dissonance between the rhetoric of “the best days are ahead of us” and the grim winter that awaits means that disillusionment with our politicians will only grow.

It is almost as if the Conservative Party has become addicted to a mind-altering drug that allows it to believe that marvellous things are about to happen, and that the immediate and deteriorating circumstances around them can be ignored. The habit was formed during the EU referendum debate and was allowed to develop during the Brexit stalemate period, and the Tories had become dependent on it by the time Johnson took over. Now, the pain involved in giving it up is too ghastly to bear.

Reality, however, cannot be escaped for long. Truss may have promised happier days but this is not imminent. A credible plan to see the UK through the winter is still needed. There is a lack of seriousness about the country’s politics that is failing to address its relative decline. If her policies undermine Britain’s economic institutions and trading relationships (as they might), the situation may worsen.

There is a shock coming. It would at least be some kind of consolation if this brought an end to the delusion that all problems can be solved by a combination of positive thinking and ideological purity. But, at the moment, there is little sign that the Conservative Party is willing to kick the habit.

[See also: A Liz Truss government means the return of the UK’s radical right wing]

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