Three months since the last Conservative leadership contest, a new one has begun. There may not be a formal vacancy but this has hardly deterred candidates. Boris Johnson, who resigned in disgrace in July, has demanded that the government cut taxes and send fighter jets to Ukraine. Liz Truss, meanwhile, has written a 4,000-word apologia on her catastrophic 49 days as prime minister.
Both of the former Tory leaders, as Andrew Marr writes on page 20, are exploiting the vacuum created by Rishi Sunak’s lack of definition. The Prime Minister’s banal five pledges – halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing the national debt, cutting NHS waiting lists and curbing Channel crossings – hardly amount to a programme for government. At present, as we have previously argued in these pages, Mr Sunak is merely defined by his contradictions: a tax-cutter who won’t cut tax; a Brexiteer who can’t explain what Brexit is for; a technocratic manager who can’t manage.
For these reasons, the ideological dogma offered by Ms Truss will appeal to Conservative members and some of the party’s remaining voters. But her verbose essay only confirmed that, like the Bourbons, she has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
Rather than accepting responsibility for crashing the economy, Ms Truss blames irresponsible pension funds for bringing “my premiership to an abrupt and premature end”. This, as the former Conservative cabinet minister David Gauke writes on page 23, is an inversion of reality: “The fundamental problem was that gilt yields surged because the bond market thought the UK government had taken leave of its senses.”
Ms Truss claims she was not informed about the threats to the pensions industry. But had she been, would she really have abandoned her tax-cutting programme? Her ridicule of the warnings she was offered suggests not.
This is far from the only delusion still entertained by Ms Truss. She, and many other Tory MPs, persist in believing that excess taxation and regulation are the cause of the UK’s economic woes. In reality Britain remains a relatively low-tax and low-regulation economy by Western standards. What it desperately lacks is investment – something that Ms Truss’s 49-day escapade did nothing to encourage.
But as absurd as her arguments are, they matter. The internal pressure on Mr Sunak to pursue the Trussite agenda – cut taxes, cut regulation and, ultimately, cut spending – will only grow.
This state of affairs is a reflection of how narrow the Conservatives’ ideological spectrum has become. Mr Sunak is hardly from the party’s left: he backed Brexit (on free-market grounds), lionises Margaret Thatcher and once argued that public spending should ideally not exceed 37 per cent of GDP. But at every turn, the loudest voices raised are those urging him to move to the right.
The Conservative Party lacks what it once had: a vigorous and influential One Nation wing. In 1992 Ian Gilmour, the former Conservative cabinet minister, published Dancing with Dogma, an excoriating critique of Thatcherism and its economic and social consequences. Which Tory MP could write such a work today? “Monetarism, like Marxism, suffered the only fate that for a theory is worse than death: it was put into practice,” Mr Gilmour wrote. One could say the same of Trussonomics.
But its adherents are unrepentant: the problem, they argue, is simply that their ideas weren’t properly tried. The result is that the Tory party’s internal debate exists in a different ideological universe than that of most voters.
A coherent One Nation critique of Mr Sunak would urge him to reach a fair settlement with striking public sector workers, who have suffered real-terms pay cuts since 2010. It would recognise the need for judicious tax rises and would demand a more progressive approach, including new wealth taxes. And, above all, it would recognise the role of the active state in driving economic growth and delivering national priorities.
The absence of such arguments is a symptom of a party preparing for opposition – one that is most comfortable talking to itself. For now, however, it remains in government. Ms Truss’s premiership was an apt demonstration of how much damage can be done before a quick death. Mr Sunak will prove the cost of a slow one.
This article appears in the 08 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Silent Sunak