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5 September 2023

Have the Tories learned anything from Liz Truss?

The party is set to repeat the pattern that led to her election a year ago.

By David Gauke

Today, 5 September, is the first anniversary of Liz Truss becoming Tory leader (and tomorrow, prime minister). Yes, it really did happen.

The thunderclouds over Downing Street as the new prime minister returned from Balmoral proved to be an accurate portent. That her premiership collapsed in chaos came as little surprise; that it only took 44 days before she resigned surely exceeded even the worst expectations.

If I had had a vote in Conservative leadership election, I would have voted for Rishi Sunak but I was in a small minority that took some pleasure from her ascendancy. This was, in part, because I had known Truss for many years and always rather liked her (if not necessarily rated her judgement). But principally it was because I had predicted her ascendancy three months earlier, even before Boris Johnson had resigned, and felt smugly prescient. New Statesman subscribers had been the first to know what was going to happen!

At the time of my prediction, a former colleague texted me to say “you’re not funny you know” before going on to ask “dear god, can you imagine?” That did not stop them subsequently endorsing her for the leadership. That is politics, I suppose.

Truss’s victory was not initially inevitable but whoever emerged as the candidate of the right was always going to win. Sunak (hardly a Tory wet), was seen as a betrayer of Boris Johnson and a tax riser. A candidate who had not wielded the dagger and was enthusiastic about promising tax cuts, regardless of the fiscal situation, was unstoppable with the party membership. Of course, on both issues – Johnson and fiscal policy – Sunak was vindicated.

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[See also: Keir Starmer’s reshuffle was politically ruthless]

The subsequent inquiry by the Standards and Privileges Committee exposed Johnson’s dishonesty over Downing Street parties during lockdown and found him in contempt of parliament. Had Johnson somehow still been prime minister when this conclusion was reached, his premiership would have ended in even more humiliating circumstances than it actually did.

On economic policy, Sunak warned that unfunded tax cuts would cause market turbulence and drive up interest rates. This, of course, is precisely what happened.

Not that this has done Sunak any particular favours. Have the Johnson enthusiasts acknowledged that it was just as well that he was forced out last July? No, instead we have Nadine Dorries talking of undemocratic conspiracies. Have those who cheered the Kwasi Kwarteng mini-Budget accepted that it was extraordinarily reckless and ill-conceived? There were communication failures, it is conceded, but on the substance? Truss and Kwarteng were unlucky, they could not be blamed for what happened with pension funds, the establishment stitched them up, and – look! – the economy is not growing very much. In other words, Truss was right and it was all someone else’s fault anyway.

This lack of reflection from most of the right of the Conservative Party has a short-term and a medium-term consequence. In the short term, Sunak has trod carefully – too carefully – in avoiding conflict within his party. He could have presented himself as a figure of integrity who finally called time on Johnson’s dissolute regime. He could also claim to be the prime minister who, alongside Jeremy Hunt, cleared up the fiscal mess left by their predecessors. On both points, however, he has avoided antagonising his party. He missed the Commons vote on the Standards and Privileges Committee report on Johnson and has never properly articulated why the Truss approach to taxes was so flawed. As a consequence, he has not done enough to distance himself from some of the failures of the past.

In the medium term, the likelihood is that the Conservative Party will repeat the pattern seen in Truss’s victory in the next leadership election. A candidate of the right will be on the ballot paper sent to the party membership and that candidate will win. It does not matter that the policies they espouse may be impractical and should have been discredited by the events of a year ago.

The Truss premiership was a disaster but at least it should have provided a salutary lesson to the Conservative Party. The sad fact is that all the evidence suggests it has not.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

[See also: Liz Truss is more realistic than you might think]

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