A good politician should also be a good storyteller. Narratives matter in politics. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” as Joan Didion put it. Liz Truss is a bad politician, as recent events confirm, but she believed she had a good story to tell the British people about who they were and what kind of country they should aspire to live in. Britain should be a dynamic, low-tax, growth-fixated, buccaneering player on the global stage. Britannia unchained. Britannia liberated from the growth-destroyers. But Truss misunderstands the temper of the times. In this age of great power rivalry and scarcity wars, people crave order and security. They look to the national state to provide protection against the destabilising forces of free-market globalisation.
The challenge confronting us in these islands is this: how do we create a renewed sense of national mission after the traumas of the Brexit wars and the pandemic? What makes the nation cohere? How do we create a politics informed above all else by the Orwellian ideal of common decency? In her eagerness to unchain us, Truss fatally confused the wishes of the paid-up members of the Conservative Party – mostly elderly and affluent, and who elected her as leader and thus Prime Minister – with those of the British people.
Politics is a competition between partial truths, which is why pragmatism and moderation are desirable. A good politician adapts to the logic of the situation, seeks to unify rather than divide, reaches out across difference, and ought to understand that good policy is in effect about getting the balance right. On the afternoon of 17 October, the Prime Minister sat impassively on the front bench in the Commons as Jeremy Hunt, her seigneurial, straight-backed new Chancellor, made the case afresh for fiscal responsibility. Truss looked utterly defeated, the smirk of the early days of her premiership replaced by a kind of zombie stare. She knew it was over. She knew her premiership would be associated with hubris and abject failure. Her leadership would be studied as an object lesson in how not to do politics.
Truss is an ideologue. She acts from conviction and means what she says, which can be admirable in the right circumstances. These were entirely the wrong circumstances in which to unleash a brutal libertarian experiment on the British people, privileging the rich. The United Kingdom is a debt-burdened, fragmented multinational state whose fragile unity is existentially threatened by a confident and assertive nationalist movement in Scotland, whose leader Truss has dismissed as an “attention seeker”. Since entering No 10, Truss has made no attempt to meet or even speak to Nicola Sturgeon, just as she and her former chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, made no attempt to prepare the markets for their “shock and awe” mini-Budget, which Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation described as “the worst unforced economic policy error of my lifetime”.
After 12 years in power, this is what is left of the parliamentary Conservatives. The party is broken. There is no one central unifying figure around whom MPs can gather. The Europhiles have been purged. The communitarians and Burkeans have retreated. The so-called one nation Tories no longer seem to understand what “one nation” even means in this age of upheaval. The Johnsonites yearn for the return of the Great Clown. Who is left? The answer, it seems, is Jeremy Hunt, whom I called the “last Cameroon” in a long profile I wrote of him when he was foreign secretary, published in the spring before he was defeated by Boris Johnson for the leadership in 2019.
As he has shown in recent days, Hunt is a serious and measured politician. Watch him being interviewed – as I did up close when I visited Bucharest with him for the biannual Gymnich informal gathering of EU foreign ministers – and you get a sense of his emollient style. He sits perfectly still, his open gaze directed at his interrogator, his voice calm and deliberative. He told me that before an interview he knows exactly what he wants to say and seeks to avoid conflict. Observing him you are reminded of a senior hospital doctor on a late night round pausing at a bedside to offer reassurance even as he delivers bad news.
The son of a senior Royal Navy officer, Nicholas Hunt, he was educated at Charterhouse, where he was head boy. At Oxford he was a contemporary of Boris Johnson and David Cameron, one of Simon Kuper’s “chums”, and head of the Conservative Association. He earned a first in PPE and was back then, he told me, a “libertarian firebrand”. In his twenties, he worked in Japan, where he learned the language; his wife is Chinese. In 2017 he made £15m from the sale of Hotcourses, an educational listings company he co-founded with his old friend Mike Elms.
Jeremy Hunt will relish being at the Treasury, an institution demoralised by Kwarteng’s recent sacking of Tom Scholar, the long-time permanent secretary, and the recklessness of the mini-Budget. As foreign secretary he inherited a Foreign Office similarly demoralised after the erratic tenure of Johnson. He has appointed as one of his advisers Rupert Harrison, another Cameroon, formerly chief aide to George Osborne when he was chancellor and now a portfolio manager at BlackRock.
The Tories entered power under David Cameron 12 years ago committed to austerity economics, and now the Last Cameroon is preparing us for more of the same just as the social fabric of the country becomes ever more frayed and unstitched. The wheel is come full circle: we are here. This time they cannot blame Gordon Brown.
[See also: A bonfire of delusions]
This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency