Right now, there are no good options for Conservative MPs. Some dream of a new plot against No 10 – more letters going into Graham Brady; a further challenge and contest; the end of Liz Truss.
This would be madness. And deeply irresponsible. What’s happening at the moment is, essentially, the markets telling the British government: “we don’t believe you”. It’s about risk and the price of risk. Below that, it’s about authority. Whatever you think of the Prime Minister, to put the British state through another period where there is, in effect, no government, as was the case this summer, would be an atrocious abdication of responsibility.
Then there is the outcome. The Conservative Party remains utterly divided. There is no new leader who could today unite it ideologically or organisationally – not Rishi Sunak, now drenched in that intoxicating cologne, Vindication, nor an air-punching Boris Johnson. As one former cabinet minister put it to me this week, faced with a third prime minister in three years, the country would absolutely demand a general election. There is barely a thread of democratic legitimacy for Truss’s new economic experiment. There would be absolutely none for yet another leader.
It would of course be perfectly open to Truss to sack Kwasi Kwarteng. But they are politically joined at the hip: to sack him would be to sack her policy agenda; to sack, philosophically, herself. And of course, they are friends and neighbours, which still counts for something, even in modern Tory politics.
So, if the Tories can’t change the people, can they change the policies? It would be a terrible humiliation, though there are ways of mitigating it. Ken Clarke, the former chancellor, suggested to me that Kwarteng, whom he likes, could recommit to his tax cuts but say that, having listened to the markets, he has decided to delay them for a year or two.
This seems both eminently sensible and highly unlikely. The government believes that its exciting package of “supply-side reforms”, to be unveiled next month, will calm the markets and cause the surge in growth ministers keep talking up.
[See also: Liz Truss and the rise of the libertarian right]
Again, I can’t see it. Radical planning reforms will run straight into opposition from the Tory shires. “Red Wall” Conservatives, increasingly alarmed about their own future, are unlikely to vote for diluting workers’ rights or cutting benefits. The Prime Minister has received a brutal lesson in numbers from the markets; but the numbers in the House of Commons matter almost as much.
Overseas investors are not, to put it gently, in the mood to pour money into the British economy. The demands for “efficiency savings” from already cash-strapped government departments suggests no chance of state-driven expansion. A phase of real-terms spending cuts seems much likelier to have chill and contractionary results than lead to vigorous expansion.
So, to march on in defiant hope, believing that something will turn up, seems the least worst option. Prime Minister Truss needs to make it through to 2024 and hold an election following months of sustained growth; if next year or in early 2024 this does not happen, then the ruthless Conservative machine may eject and replace her. This has, as she will know, happened before.
Traditionally, a successful Conservative government can rely on the three Ms – support from the markets, the media and the machinery of state (including, from a distance, a fourth M: the monarchy). This one has, for the time being, lost the markets and much of the machinery of government, but it still has the media.
The phalanx of Conservative newspapers is preparing to enter full election mode. Key editors loathe Keir Starmer for his role in prosecutions over phone hacking and have been told to do everything they possibly can to stop him reaching Downing Street. What follows is going to be dirty, strung-out street fighting. We keep being told that new media matters far more now and that the next election will be conducted on Twitter and Instagram. Well, we shall see. For raw rhetorical power, their experience in shaping stories, and their relentlessness, the old media should never be written off.
We must go on instinct as well as experience and sources. It feels to me that everything at the heart of government is fragile at present. I don’t know how – or when – it will happen, but the chance of a catastrophic political breakdown and a sudden general election is now rather high.