There was always a risk that it might end like this. Contrary to some of the criticisms of Liz Truss, she is bright, hard-working, motivated by the desire to change things for the better and, in person, likeable. But she has always had a high appetite for risk and a confidence in her own opinions (as well as a willingness to dismiss the opinions of experts) that was misplaced. In short, she was not someone whose judgement could be relied upon.
This was not a tightly held secret known only to insiders. The evidence – from a long ministerial career – was familiar to the media and MPs. This did not count sufficiently against her. Instead, promising that all would be right as long as the government did all the things Conservative members always wanted to do was enough for her to win the leadership.
A government benefits from having within it people who are willing to challenge orthodoxies, but in the end decisions have to be made by those with a broader range of skills. Truss – as well as the country – was unfortunate that she took office at the very point when stability and caution were at a premium. But there is never a time when recklessness is appropriate, and Truss and her first chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, were reckless.
There is something wrong with a political party that ends up with Liz Truss as leader. Her victory did not come as a great surprise because the right’s candidate was always likely to succeed and the talent pool is thin. The balance of the party has changed in recent years as a willingness to hail the supposed benefits of Brexit became a requirement for career progression. Brexit-sceptic MPs and members have left the party while ex-Ukippers have joined. Susceptibility to economic delusions became the norm.
The economic realities of Brexit have become clear after six years. The economic realities of the mini-Budget were apparent within minutes, as the pound plummeted and government borrowing costs surged. There was no escaping the scrutiny of the bond markets as ideology met reality and reality won. The tax cuts were abandoned, Kwarteng was sacked, a grown-up appointed chancellor and, eventually, Truss resigned.
It is perfectly obvious what a serious, responsible political party would do next. The government is striving to regain market confidence; it is going to have to take difficult and serious decisions as it attempts to avoid further market turmoil and even deeper damage to our economic credibility. It has a candidate well placed to do all of this – Rishi Sunak. He is not the perfect candidate to appeal to the populist voters that helped the Conservatives win an 80-seat majority in 2019 but he correctly identified the flaws in Truss’s fiscal plans, has a record of facing up to the difficulties in the public finances, and is economically numerate.
Penny Mordaunt has her supporters and she has her strengths. But she has not been tested by high office (other than a few weeks as defence secretary) and does not have an economic background. She would be another gamble.
The other name in contention is, of course, Boris Johnson. I have made the case before that Johnson would fancy another crack at the job and, having made the case, I became increasingly convinced that there was a scenario in which he could pull it off. This, I think (or is it hope?), is not that scenario. The vacancy has come too quickly, memories of his conduct are too fresh in the minds of MPs, and he still faces a potentially humiliating inquiry by the Commons Privileges Committee into whether he misled parliament. He would also be better suited to addressing a purely political crisis (such as imminent electoral defeat), not a fiscal one. He would not be a reassuring figure for the financial markets given the need to take unpopular decisions.
What does the Conservative Party now do? Recently, a reliable guide to identifying how it will proceed has been to assume the worst. I am on a bit of a roll of late in predicting how the Tories will behave on that basis but on this occasion matters may be different. They have taken themselves and the country to the brink. They have defied caution and competence and common sense so often that a sense of self-preservation and responsibility has to apply now or it is all too late. They cannot fail this test. Surely?