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21 October 2022

Political friendship is a liability – just ask Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng

Cramming your cabinet full of chums is tempting but it is a trap.

By Martha Gill

Here’s a rule of thumb. The more important long-standing personal friendships become in the running of an institution – a business, a political party, a government department, a country – the more dysfunctional that institution will be.

An underrated factor in the falls of Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, her predecessor (and potential successor) as prime minister, is that they surrounded themselves with mates, stuffing their cabinets with chums and loyal favourites. A cabinet of cronies starts by making you look weak. Then it messes up all your decisions. For both, it paved the way to their downfall.

Take Truss’s decade-plus long friendship with her first chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, which was initially talked up as a cornerstone on which her government would be built. The two – “Batman and Robin”, “ideological soulmates” – were such good mates that they ended up living on the same street. But it led to disaster. A pair who were ideologically matched but warier of each other might have allowed a couple more people into their echo chamber to check the maths before they released their fateful mini-Budget. But Liz and Kwasi were old friends – their trust, founded perhaps on Greenwich suppers and long nerdy pub chats about Adam Smith went beyond mere belief in each other’s competence. No glaring error could shake their fiscal plan.

And when a prime minister is relying a great deal on a friendship to prop up her government (and when a chancellor is dependent on that friendship for his job), neither might want to upset the apple cart by calling in second opinions. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that the closeness of the friendship might have led them to a more casual approach to protocol, too. Their extraordinary proposals, unfunded and lacking economic forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, were the result.

Of course once the markets passed judgement, the friendship became a liability in a second way. It soon became clear that the only way for Truss to limp on was to get rid of her chancellor. Friendship probably muddled that decision – it took her far longer to summon Kwarteng to her office than it should have, inflicting further damage on the economy day by day.

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Yet finally ditching Kwarteng only revealed a third liability of the relationship. If Truss could dispatch an old friend so easily, thought her allies, who wouldn’t she get rid of to save herself? A display of disloyalty to a personal friend reflects badly on a politician’s character. It paints them as untrustworthy and unattractively inhuman. It also made Truss’s remaining allies much less inclined to put themselves on the line for her – in the end it was another old friend, Thérèse Coffey, who was sent to Downing Street to tell her it was time to go. If Truss had dispensed with Kwarteng, Coffey might have reasoned, she herself may not have been far behind.

Cramming your cabinet full of chums is tempting – “keep in with me or else”, it says – but it is a trap. Loyalty is important to any leader, and appointing your mates might seem like a convenient shortcut to it, but depending on old personal ties rather than, say, respect won with a record of competence won’t help you in the end. Favouring your mates either descends into actual cronyism or risks looking like it. Cronyism caused Johnson’s downfall. The scandals that brought down his government were all caused by exceptions made for friends. They started with his “loyalty” to Dominic Cummings after he broke lockdown rules to drive to Durham, and ended with his “loyalty” to Owen Paterson and Chris Pincher during scandals about their alleged conduct.

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It doesn’t even have to go that far, as Truss belatedly learned. When you hand someone a job on the basis of your friendship, you are both instantly compromised. You look weak and they are tainted too, and therefore less useful to you. If you need defending the word of a crony carries much less weight. They can’t really help you. Even when she was minded to, Coffey could do little to defend Truss, try as she might. It was only the support of people such as Jeremy Hunt, who has never been one of Truss’s close allies, that could lend her credibility.

But betray your friends, and the public will not forgive you. Never has a politician lost more love than Ed Miliband did when he seemed to stab his own brother in the back to win the Labour leadership. One can’t avoid having relatives to betray, but one can avoid making close friends in politics. When Sajid Javid, an old friend of Rishi Sunak, decided not to support him in the recent leadership contest, it made headlines: Javid had “betrayed” him. Sunak, in his turn, was accused of “betraying” Johnson in gunning for the job in the first place – in fact it may have cost him the contest. 

There’s only one conclusion: friendship is a gift, but not in politics. It has always been a political liability – a truth well covered by any Shakespeare history play. “Friendship’s the privilege of private men, for wretched greatness knows no blessing so substantial,” wrote the later 17th-century dramatist Nahum Tate. It has not got less true with time. Future party leaders should take note.

[See also: Boris Johnson’s path back to power is a treacherous one]