You’d think that Liz Truss had just taken part in that classic British party game pass the parcel – which, in effect, is what has been happening in the Tory party of late – and the layer unpacked as the music stops reveals something quietly ticking away under the wrapping. That suave young shaver Rishi Sunak doesn’t know how lucky he is, not to be left holding this particular unexploded bomb.
I kept thinking about the word “delusional” as Truss stepped into No 10 as the Queen’s 15th British prime minister, following an excruciatingly tedious and overextended leadership contest that only seemed to be engaging SW1 summer swots and men called Geoffrey.
Delusion. Noun. An idiosyncratic belief or impression maintained despite being contradicted by reality or rational argument, typically as a symptom of mental disorder. Is Truss completely mad wanting to become prime minister? Forget Tony Blair’s mantra that things can only get better; most of us know things can only get a good deal worse. Look at the in-tray: strikes, Covid, the Northern Ireland protocol, energy, cost of living, inflation, recession, NHS collapse, housing shortages, pub closures, Ukraine, Taiwan, climate change, Donald Trump, immigration, social care, shitty beaches; Boris Johnson hovering menacingly on the back benches with Michael Gove and Dominic Raab, and Sunak dug in behind enemy lines as well. And with only two years to turn it around.
Most of the politicians I’ve known are slightly delusional. But then the “madman theory” – when leaders deliberately present themselves as irrational or volatile to deter other heads of state from attacking them out of fear of an unpredictable response – has long been associated with politics. The former US president Richard Nixon used it to forge his foreign policy when dealing with hostile communist countries.
The psychiatry professor Nassir Ghaemi, in his book A First-Rate Madness, studied the known and posthumously diagnosed mental illnesses of some past world leaders – such as Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy and Gandhi – and concluded that instead of being a handicap, mental health issues actually helped them in times of crises. Ghaemi suggested that mania is linked with energy and creativity, and depression prompts empathy and more realism in a person.
Sipping from the poisoned chalice
Of course, the libertarian Truss isn’t really unhinged, as some of her misogynistic male colleagues have implied. She actually is brave. Brave to sip from this poisoned chalice. Brave to reject “Tory boy” Osborne economics. Brave to take on her anarchical party. Yes, her plan is filled with explosive, incendiary material ready to be detonated by MPs and the media. Yet if she can scrape through the next two years borrowing more, giving handouts to the needy, reassessing the Bank of England’s mandate, and then create a simple but radical plan to transform the economy at the next general election, who knows what could happen. And it’s not as if Keir Starmer has come up with anything better.
On the subject of boreholes, we installed one at our rural Devon smallholding because water is not good at running uphill – which is what our water company, Sisyphus-style, was struggling to accept. We came off the main water supply, screwed our way into an underground watercourse and got 90 per cent knocked off our water bill. When the south-west region fell into drought following some of the driest conditions in nearly 90 years, our garden was positively Truss-like – an oasis of green optimism in a desert of uncertainty.
While waiting for a support package to deal with surging energy costs we also installed a smart meter. Bad idea. A smart meter is meant to bring administrative peace to household accounting. What it in fact does is take away your privacy and make you a slave to another corporate colossus. It had quite an effect on my husband’s equilibrium. He sat hypnotised by the digital figures as they rose on the in-home display device, as if he were a snake being charmed. Not so charmingly, he then hurled abuse at anyone who threw on a light switch.
I lit a candle to calm him down – the most romantic instrument I could think of to save and expel energy – and I told him over dinner how glad I was that he was no longer an MP or a minister, up there in lights, glad that we were just another boring middle-aged couple, struggling to keep them on. And I said to him, “All we can do now is put our Truss in Liz.”
Sasha Swire is the author of “Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power” (Abacus)
[See also: What Liz Truss means for Labour]
This article appears in the 07 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Liz Truss Unchained