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13 January 2023

The last thing Britain needs is a Trussite think tank

I worked for Liz Truss and admire her but she is the wrong advocate for free-market ideas.

By Henry Oliver

The Trussites in the Conservative Party have started the new year dreaming a delusional dream. Former members of Liz Truss‘s cabinet are sick of Rishi Sunak’s lack of a growth policy. Her reforms have been abandoned and there is talk of an industrial strategy. The party of business is becoming the party of busybodies. The Trussites’ response? A new free-market think tank, led by the former prime minister.

This is a terrible idea. I say this as a former employee of Truss and one of the few people in the country who feels sorry for her, who has written that she was right and will be vindicated, that she’s not as doctrinaire as she looks and is really quite bright. I say this, in short, as one of the last remaining people who is on her side – for God’s sake, Liz, don’t start a think tank.

I remember the heady days of 2012 when James Forsyth, then political editor of the Spectator, predicted at the Institute of Economic Affairs that Truss’s Free Enterprise Group was the intellectual future of the party. Too bad Truss ended up putting over an energy policy that would have made the Labour chancellor Denis Healey blink with its audacious statism. Now Forsyth works for Sunak, his successor is reporting on plots by former Truss cabinet members, and the Tory party is mostly interested in trying to take the number of houses built this year to as close to zero as possible.

Which is exactly why Truss needs to back away from any think tank plans. In the future she’ll be seen by the party as a figure like Barry Goldwater, the Republican who lost the 1964 presidential election but laid the foundations for Reaganism. The right ideas at the wrong time. As it is, Truss’s association with any proposal is going to make it harder for it to get any traction. We don’t lack ideas for right-wing economics – look at Sam Bowman and Sian Westlake’s essay “Reviving Economic Thinking on the Right“, or “The Housing Theory of Everything“. Look at the proposals of Policy Exchange. Look at the new campaign Britain Remade. We don’t lack credible pro-growth thinking. We don’t lack a new generation of thinkers.

We lack a receptive political environment. In 2012 Truss and her group were the future. All we can say now, perhaps, following David Cameron, is that she was the future once. What will a Liz Truss think tank provide that others cannot? It is time to accept that, right though she was, Truss doesn’t have the image to do this successfully.

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There are no circumstances, at least in the short-term, in which an idea is likely to gain ground if it is associated with her. Growth faces enough challenges to be accepted as the priority by Conservatives without Truss joining the miserable fray.

A think tank would, however, give Truss a lot of what she wants. She has worked for think tanks before. She is suited to the role. She loves gossip. (She’s an infamous leaker.) She loves the political game. She loves being the “soundest” libertarian in the room. She loves arguing. She loves being right. She loves nursing a grudge and then using that to inspire her next idea.

Truss loves being the font of ideas. In their biography Out of the Blue Harry Cole and James Heale report that she more or less disbanded the No 10 policy unit, quoting an aide who says, “The PM is the policy unit.” But she abandoned her ideals. She might have been reluctant to introduce the energy spending and price cap – “kicking the tyres” for alternatives – but she did it. As Cole and Heale report, her cabinet colleagues were stunned. She is not quite the mascot she might think she can be.

“I enjoy provoking people,” she once told me, “but I don’t like it when they snap back.” Is that the person we want founding a new pro-growth think tank? Some other revelations from Cole and Heale should give her supporters pause. During her time as chief secretary to the Treasury, Truss befriended a young civil servant who helped her renew her wardrobe. There was a rupture over some change of plans on one particular shopping trip and although it is not quite clear what happened, the young woman refused to talk to Truss again.

It’s unfair to take sides, but I can well imagine the young woman’s position. I’ve seen Truss dealing with people who got on the wrong side of her. Cole and Heale reiterate several times the way Truss’s team was riven with rivalries and disappointments. One adviser left after eleven months. Truss allegedly told an aide at the Treasury during a row that they should have been shot at birth. Is this the person to nurture a new generation of talent? If her strong minded ideals were going to help her build a formidable team, as I thought they might, it would have happened in Downing Street. It did not.

She took free-market thinkers into the Treasury when she was chief secretary, in her first attempt to shake up Treasury orthodoxy, and she notably failed to change any minds. The quality of her ideas is not in question, but her ability to advocate for them certainly is. “I’m a campaigner – it’s what I do,” Cole and Heale quote her saying. True enough. But the campaign is over. She lost. Truss is not, as we have learned recently, as good at politics as she thought she was.

“The day supplieth us with truths,” said Thomas Browne, “the night with fictions and falsehoods.” You had your day in the sun, Liz. The dream is dead. Now it’s time to wait for a new dawn.

[See also: Five years on, the government still hasn’t learned the lessons of Carillion’s collapse]

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