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19 April 2024updated 23 Apr 2024 1:17am

Liberals shouldn’t jeer Liz Truss

The former prime minister’s arguments and ideas are set to shape the right’s future – they need to be taken seriously.

By Lewis Goodall

At the 1980 Labour Party conference, Tony Benn, Jim Callaghan’s energy secretary only a year before, took to the floor. The atmosphere was venomous, brimming with political bloodlust. It reached its crescendo with Benn’s speech. He proceeded to read out a list of ways in which the government he had been a senior member of had let down the labour movement. Roy Hattersley, a future Labour deputy leader, later described the speech as a “lie, a poisonous deceit”.

It is not hard to imagine these dynamics at the first post-defeat Conservative Party conference in 2025 – if not from the main platform, then from the stage of one of the fringe groups that now vie for ideological dominance. Further, it is not hard to imagine Liz Truss, the self-described “only conservative in the room”, playing the role of Benn.

In a sense, she is already doing so. In her millenarian Ten Years to Save the West book tour, Truss is cementing one of the biggest PR coups of the decade – by reframing her incompetence and rigidity as being the result of the “economic establishment” and “liberal deep state”.

It is easy to mock but in our vibes-first political age, Truss’s strategy is effective. Not because people’s view will change: they’ve made up their minds about Truss and her brief, toxic premiership. Instead, she is targeting the rump Conservative Party membership and its associated political and media ecosystem. In these people and organisations, you can already see and feel the pull of Trussite revisionism. This is not necessarily because they are fond of her, but of her message – that the state is geared against conservative values and objectives. It is easier to wallow in the politics of excuse than to provide hard answers for 14 years of largely failed statecraft.

It’s worth dwelling on the substance of Truss’s argument: that the “administrative state” is hard-wired against Conservative (in both senses of the word) outcomes, and that this is a relatively modern phenomenon. There is a body of academic research to support the idea that the civil service, comprised largely of the graduate class, shares many of the attitudes of the liberal left. It is worth asking whether too much power has been outsourced away from ministers to non-governmental organisations. Some of Truss’s arguments on the Office for Budget Responsibility (and the absurdity of the Budget process) and the unaccountability of the Bank of England are worth considering.

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There is far less evidence that this amounts to active policy obstruction, as Truss asserts. We are 14 years into a Conservative government that has overseen the desiccation of much of the public realm. Hundreds of thousands of civil servants worked night and day to prepare for and implement Brexit, a policy we can probably assume many of them opposed. Were it not for them, the signature achievements of these Conservative administrations would not have been possible. Truss’s claim that Whitehall was pitched against her government is a solipsistic complaint of the sort at which she excels. Effective ministers overcome obstacles, including bureaucratic inertia; they do not wallow in them.

That is not to say that ministers do not face such obstacles or that the administrative state does not possess its own interests, inefficiencies and inadequacies. But these have always existed and they are not uniquely weighed against Conservative administrations. Indeed, they are probably universal. Ask President Eisenhower, who railed against the “military-industrial complex” in the 1950s. Or Truss’s great hero, Margaret Thatcher, who cited Yes Minister as her favourite TV programme, likening it to a documentary (the show’s fundamental conceit is that officials pursue their own interests over those of ministers).

As evidence for her claims, Truss repeatedly cites routine political opposition to routine political decisions. In an interview with LBC, she referred back to the proposed abolition of the Forestry Commission in 2010: the negative headlines it generated, the opposition from interest groups, and the lack of prime ministerial backing as a result. In this and many other examples, Truss describes not a conspiratorial deep state, nor even hegemonic groupthink, but the routine day-to-day business of democratic politics. She seems offended that others might oppose her views or aspirations, believing that Conservative ends are self-evidently superior to the alternatives. She fails to reckon with the truth: that she is a poor practitioner of politics with few achievements to her name as a result. Though she styles herself as a political teacher, she only preaches to the converted.

Regardless of their merits, Truss’s arguments about institutional capture and state bias are gaining more and more traction among Tories and the wider right. Is it any surprise? No one from the liberal wing of the Conservative Party, not least Rishi Sunak (if one even brackets him in this tribe), has sought to argue against them for fear of antagonising its right wing. This is one of the cardinal strategic errors of his premiership, something that for the first time he began to correct at this week’s PMQs. But it is far too late. 

Away from Truss’s whingeing, a far superior messenger for the right, Nigel Farage, is continuing to move the Tory party’s Overton window. The political authorities in Brussels once again played into his hands by trying to shut down the National Conservatism conference in the city.

Farage, like Truss and the rest of the new right thrives on victimhood and a sense of persecution – this was a dream outcome. But he also had a point: there was no good case for shutting the event down, however frenzied some of the arguments within.

Liberals should take note. As much as the arguments made by Truss, Farage and the National Conservatives might seem flawed, or worse, they are where the intellectual energy lies on the right – indeed, it is notable is how few equivalents there are on the liberal side of politics. Truss and Farage seem destined to have far more influence on the future direction of conservatism than Sunak or any of the figures who dominate his fin-de-siècle administration. Instant dismissal of the right-wing case, or worse, its attempted suppression, is a dead end for liberalism.

Labour is in a slumber, buttressed by a poll lead that will not endure. Liberals and the centre left will soon need their own arguments against hard-right Conservatives. In the years ahead, when the battle with the new conservatism is joined, jeering at Truss and tutting about Farage won’t be enough.

[See also: What on Earth is going on with the Conservative Party?]

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