It is probably all over. There is, it is now very likely, nothing that can realistically be done. The public’s patience for periodic changes of prime minister was never going to be inexhaustible. Labour in one poll this week had a 33-point lead. As she pores over her address to Conservative Party conference, Liz Truss will know that this is a number from which nobody ever comes back. Yet she is obliged to carry on as if it were possible. So what on Earth might she now do and say?
The Prime Minister will be tempted to triple down on her current plans. Yet listen to what happened when she doubled down during a catastrophic round of local radio interviews last week. The Chancellor’s unnecessary and unfair economic plan left the Prime Minister, live on air, literally speechless when asked what she could say to people whose mortgage payments were rising faster than their ability to pay.
Kwasi Kwarteng has managed to turn a mini-budget into a major mistake. His error was not so much the unjust tax cuts. Some relatively small fiscal movement is not what has spooked the markets into turmoil – that was triggered by Kwarteng’s arrogant dismissal of the need for the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to make any assessment of the state of the public finances or growth forecasts. Coupled with his airy insistence that there was more to come – more what, exactly? – the markets turned. Markets are, after all, a massive system for betting on the horses. They are made up of people who all affect one another, and when the vibe goes round that a bad guy has hit town the rumour spreads very quickly.
It would be ideal for Kwarteng to walk away in humiliation but the Chancellor is a stranger to humility so there is no chance of that. Sacking him – 45p to P45 – is probably such a catastrophic confession of failure that it would make the government seem even more absurd. So Truss has only one option. She has to become, in effect, her own chancellor. Prime Ministers regularly become their own de facto foreign secretary, as Boris Johnson did over Ukraine. Meeting the head of the OBR, as the Prime Minister has now done, was the right first move. She now needs to bring forward the date at which the OBR publishes its forecasts and offer a clear account in her speech of a debt-reduction plan. If that means reversing the Kwarteng policy without quite admitting it, that is what she needs to do.
Then, her best option is to reclaim her status as a Conservative. Each successive prime minister since 2016 has claimed to be the antidote to the one that went before. The Tory party has revelled in its capacity for reinvention: on the use of the state, on the level of public spending, on the need for cuts. Truss has followed the formula, embodied in Kwarteng’s plea for more time as he has only been in government for a few weeks. They have made this option laughable so she will be forced to do something else.
The better approach, because it is surprising and would change the subject, is to embrace the 12 years of Tory government; to claim credit, as a Conservative, for all that Conservatives have liked about the past decade. Go back and do Brexit again, rhetorically. Do a list of achievements and shamelessly plunder the reserves of the Cameron, May and Johnson times. Find every conceivable statistic that suggests schools and hospitals have improved and select the best of the employment data. Talk about innovations in Britain and the creative industries. Try to weave a story of Tory progress since Labour left office. Change the dividing line from Truss vs Johnson to Conservative vs Labour. It will be desperate stuff, in a way, but what else has she got?
The only other thing she has got, in truth, are attacks on Labour. It is clear the public regards Keir Starmer as a viable candidate to be prime minister. Truss has to take him and his party on, and she needs to speak not to the party in the Birmingham conference centre but appeal to the remaining doubts that the country still has about Labour. She has to try to persuade people that, though Starmer might be a solid citizen, his party is not ready for government. Their instincts, she could say, are still that the state should run things, with no plan for wealth creation and no reform plans beyond state spending. Point out that, because it is starting 159 seats behind the Tories, Labour is likely to have to deal with the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, making them a threat both to the constitution (through electoral reform) and to the Union. Remind the world that it isn’t long since the Labour Party asked the nation to make Jeremy Corbyn its prime minister and that those people can’t have disappeared entirely.
Most of these claims aren’t true enough. It probably won’t work. The average of the last five polls gives Labour a 22-point lead. It is probably all over for the Tories and a speech along these lines would be a mixture of policy climbdowns and political insults. Pretty desperate stuff. But – as a low, dishonest decade winds to its sorry end – these are desperate times.
This article was originally published on 30 September 2022.
[See also: Would Liz Truss dare abolish inheritance tax?]