On 5 September Liz Truss is expected to become prime minister of the United Kingdom, the fourth Conservative to hold the office since the Brexit referendum of June 2016. Since that momentous vote, the UK has been in a condition of near-permanent crisis, lurching from the polarisation of the so-called Brexit wars to the Covid pandemic and now to the war in Ukraine with all its dire consequences. Throughout this period the kingdom itself has become increasingly fragmented; the Scottish National Party is determined to force a second plebiscite on independence and the Westminster government is expected to enter a prolonged constitutional stand-off with the Scottish government.
Meanwhile, inflation is at a 40-year high, unemployment is expected to rise, and the country is grappling with the gravest cost-of-living emergency since the late 1970s. The new prime minister will be confronted by a winter of discontent as well as industrial unrest as millions of people struggle to pay household bills, and yet Ms Truss promises no more “hand-outs”.
Ms Truss is a determined politician. Through her long service in government – she was once seen as a disciple of the former chancellor George Osborne – she has shown herself to be especially resilient. She has held seven ministerial jobs under three different prime ministers and in 2016 became the first female lord chancellor. Educated at a comprehensive school and Oxford, she is bright, industrious and – similar to Boris Johnson, to whom she remains loyal – favours boosterism over old-style Tory scepticism.
Unlike Mr Johnson, however, she is an ideologue, more of a classical liberal than a conservative, and is determined to cut taxes and reduce the size of the state. Her putative government, with prominent roles expected for Brexit ultras such as Suella Braverman, Kwasi Kwarteng, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Iain Duncan Smith and even John Redwood, will be among the most right-wing of the postwar period. These people do not lack conviction: they know what they believe and believe they know what needs to be done.
Throughout her leadership campaign, Ms Truss has sought to avoid deeper scrutiny and, unlike Rishi Sunak, has avoided speaking to the BBC; most recently, she pulled out of a prime-time BBC interview with Nick Robinson. Her supporters evidently understand how reckless she can be. Shortly after Vladimir Putin’s tanks rolled into Ukraine in February, Ms Truss suggested British citizens should take up arms in defence of Ukrainians. She has since dismissed First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as an “attention-seeker” and said the “jury was still out” on whether President Macron was a “friend or foe” of Britain. This is not the language of diplomacy.
The hard right of the Conservative Party (now in control of the government) believes that the British economy can be “turbo-charged”, as Ms Truss glibly puts it, and that a tax-cutting emergency Budget will bolster growth later in the autumn. But as our political editor Andrew Marr writes on page 18: “Unless Liz Truss reneges on her core promises we should prepare for a sensational political confrontation involving a tax-cutting, small-state, free-market government at a time of economic meltdown.” Will the Truss government be prepared for the forces of unrest its policies will unlock? Or will pragmatism prevail? Whatever happens, the months ahead will test the government, and the British people, perhaps even to breaking point.
The Conservative Party has lost its balance: the moderates have been routed and the communitarians are silent. Where until recently senior figures still spoke of “levelling up” Britain, of reducing regional and intergenerational inequalities and of the “good government can do”, the Trussites speak only of tax cuts and free-market dogma.
They are dangerously misreading the times; fearful about economic collapse, people are not yearning for a form of retro-Thatcherism. But they are looking to the state for protection and security. That, surely, was the greater lesson of the vote for Brexit.
Yet the circumstances could not be more propitious for a revival of the centre left in Britain. Doing politics well is essentially about getting the balance right and responding to the world as you find it not as you wish it to be. The Liz Truss Tories may receive an initial bounce in the polls; but in the midterm the opportunity is open for Labour and other opposition parties to chart a course back to power. They must take it.
[See also: Why Liz Truss will fail]
This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine