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19 April 2024

What’s the point of Liz Truss?

In Ten Years to Save the West, Truss has lessons for the Conservative Party. They’re just not the ones she thinks.

By David Gauke

What is the point of Liz Truss? The UK’s shortest-serving prime minister left office having lost the confidence of the financial markets, her parliamentary colleagues and the general public. What possible contribution to public life could she make after all that happened in those turbulent 49 days?

Not much of one, you might be tempted to think. A retirement from parliament and a life of unostentatious good works might sound appropriate.

Truss, however, has other plans. In Ten Years to Save the West she explains that she got into politics because she believes in “the battle of ideas” and that it is “the job of political leaders to lead”, “challenging the consensus and making very clear what you believe in and what you think is going wrong”. Truss might not lead a party or a country, but she is, in her own mind, a leader of conservatism in the battle of ideas. Not just in the UK but in the US, Canada and Australia (and presumably anywhere else there might be a market for her book).

Yes, her own experience as prime minister was a spectacular failure (“things did not work out as I had hoped,” she tells us with understatement worthy of Emperor Hirohito) but conservatism can learn from her experience. The book is subtitled, “Lessons from the only conservative in the room.” There are lessons to be learned from her experience. They are not, however, the ones that Truss attempts to teach us.

The majority of the book describes her time as a minister prior to making it to Downing Street. Here we see her view of the world is quickly established. She is radical, impatient and keen to make a difference. As a junior education minister she wants to reform childcare, allowing nursery staff to look after more children, bringing down costs for parents. She loses that battle, blaming the Liberal Democrats, the “progressive left”, “vested interests” in the nursery industry, and David Cameron for not supporting her sufficiently.

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Then it is onwards and upwards to be secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs where she battles against “leftist” environmental and animal rights organisations before moving on to the Ministry of Justice. Here she falls out with the judiciary (“a self-perpetuating oligarchy”), yearns for the days when the lord chancellor could make judicial appointments, and looked “enviously” at the US system of “elected judges… and a constitutionally appointed Supreme Court”. The relationship with the judiciary becomes toxic.

In Truss’s account, this is the story of a reforming politician thwarted by powerful, vested interests. Another interpretation is that here was a minister failing to get very much done, but getting into plenty of rows. As Truss acknowledges, had Theresa May won a substantial majority in the 2017 general election, Truss would have been out of government altogether. Instead, a weakened May was only able to demote her to chief secretary to the Treasury.

The demotion was a turning point. Now Truss felt a sense of liberation. She had more time on her hands, she tells us. (This is rather striking. My experience of having been both chief secretary to the Treasury and justice secretary was that the former had the larger workload. But, then again, I did not lose the confidence of the chancellor.) She was now willing to be more outspoken.

She had an agenda. She was an unashamed small-state conservative. She believed that the country was held back by a leftist establishment, a risk-averse civil service and by fellow Conservatives too cowardly to take them on. She was going to be different.

And it worked, at least as a form of self-advancement. First, at the Treasury and subsequently at International Trade and then at the Foreign Office, she became adept at self-promotion. Not that one would pick that up from her account. She rails at the “trivialisation” of politics but was known as much for her Instagram posts as her policy positions; she complains of her time as prime minister about “a growing culture of leaks” but was widely suspected by her colleagues of being the most prolific leaker of cabinet meetings, presumably because she hoped to win favourable press coverage.

But she also offered a coherent ideology and unabashed partisanship; both of which appealed to the party members. As she argues in her book, “We should be clear that our enemies want to destroy us and not labour under the misapprehension that they are well-intentioned or neutral players.” When a vacancy for the leadership of the Conservative Party emerges in July 2022, Truss – if she can get into the final round when the members decide – is well-placed to promote her brand of unapologetic conservatism.

It works, of course. She is able to apply all that she has learnt about conservatism’s enemies and make use of all of the power at the prime minister’s disposal. She makes her close friend and ally, Kwasi Kwarteng, chancellor of the Exchequer and together they work out their “Growth Plan”.

One may have thought that the rest of this story would be familiar, but not in Truss’s telling. Apparently it was not the Growth Plan (or mini-Budget as it was to become known) that was the cause of the market turmoil, or the aggressive briefing that more tax cuts were to come. It was the failure of the Bank of England to raise interest rates the day before the mini-Budget. And it would have been fine for the pound to fall and for bond yields to rise if it had not been for these pesky liability-driven investments (LDIs) which created a systemic crisis for pension funds, something about which ministers had not been warned.

There is plenty that could be said about this. If the mini-Budget was not the problem, why was it that the measures necessary to calm the markets were to abandon the policies of the mini-Budget and the chancellor who announced them? As for the issue with LDIs, it was the spike in bond yields that created the problem in the first place. And, having moaned repeatedly about risk-averse civil servants – and sacked the head of the Treasury – it is a little rich to complain that the risk warnings were not sufficiently exhaustive.

The fundamental problem is that the markets thought that the British government was acting in a bizarre and irrational manner. But Truss has an answer to this. She had come to realise that “there is no such thing as ‘the market’ in this sense” but “groups of influential individuals in the financial establishment, all of whom know and speak to one another in a closed feedback loop” including the Bank of England, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) and the Treasury. They are the believers in the “established economic orthodoxy” who have moved to the left, what with their “net zero goals and diversity targets”.

At this point in the book, we are dangerously close to conspiracy theories.

The OBR, in particular, is a target of Truss’s wrath but she unintentionally highlights the problem with her criticisms of its forecasts. “Given that economic modelling was what I did in my professional career, I suppose I could have cleared a weekend at Chequers to crunch the numbers and write my own detailed forecast,” she says. “But I hardly think that would have inspired confidence.” She is certainly right about that. The inescapable reality is that the markets trusted the OBR and they did not trust her.

The lesson that might have been learnt from the mini-Budget is that governments must maintain market credibility. Truss appears to take the opposite view. “If there’s one thing I want conservatives to understand from this book,” she tells us, “it is that there is no smooth way to achieve the change the country and the wider West needs.” A “messy and chaotic battle against some deeply embedded vested interests and those on our own side who seek to appease them” cannot be avoided. Gosh. “VOTE CONSERVATIVE FOR MESSY AND CHAOTIC BATTLES” is quite the election slogan.

Ten Years to Save the West tells the tale of a politician with a simplistic mindset and a reckless temperament who should never have reached the top of British politics and whose ministerial career culminated in personal humiliation. The book and its author, however, at least have an educative purpose. The Conservative Party just needs to learn the right lessons.

Ten Years to Save the West: Lessons from the Only Conservative in the Room
Liz Truss     
Biteback, 320pp, £20

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger