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26 October 2022

How the Tories lost the plot

The Conservative Party’s leadership crises have led to institutional collapse

By Ed Smith

Non-golfers may not be familiar with the concept of a “mulligan”. A mulligan is a woeful golf shot. Sometimes it doesn’t get off the ground. Sometimes it goes backwards. A mulligan’s single unifying characteristic is being so embarrassing that everyone agrees to pretend that it never happened at all. With the shout of, “Mulligan!” a shot is excised from the scorecard – and the fleeting catastrophe is airbrushed into amnesia. It’s a free play, a lifeboat, a do-over.

But how many mulligans are you allowed? This is the question the Conservative Party has been facing. The Tories used up one mulligan: it was called Boris Johnson. But then their “lifeboat” – Liz Truss – was immediately revealed as even worse. When you’ve fluffed two shots in a row, what’s the way out?

The Conservative Party is saying – though it will stretch the tolerance of an aghast gallery – that it needs one final hack at governing, effectively admitting: “Mulligan! Another mulligan! Third time lucky!”

But what never works – as the Conservatives eventually conceded – is trying to claim that the first abandoned disaster (mulligan number one) could be reclassified retrospectively: “Well, this second flop has to be a mulligan, but we’ve changed our mind about the one before which we’d now like no longer to be a mulligan.” Nothing to worry about! Back where we were! Boris Johnson on the fairway!

No chance. Tory MPs had our attention before, when they decided among themselves that Johnson couldn’t be trusted on anything. It was a convincing point. Invoking exceptional circumstances is almost acceptable; changing their minds a few weeks later would have been contemptible.

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[See also: Rishi Sunak’s ruthless streak should worry Labour]

In one sense, bringing back Johnson would have been an extreme achievement. Just when we’d thought it would take years for the ideological wing of the Conservative Party to come up with a worse idea than making Truss prime minister, they trumped it with the Johnson caper. The party had long been flirting with disaster; Johnson Act II would have been a full-throttle death wish.

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How did the Conservatives get into this vortex? Without sneering or invoking insanity, how can it be explained – first the promotion of Truss, then countenancing bringing back a recently disgraced leader? And all by the Conservative Party, which is supposed to be centred on common sense, shrewd instincts and winning elections.

That’s why the underlying drama of recent weeks has had less to do with Truss (or even Johnson) and much more to do with the collective mindset of the party. It’s a drama that ought to grip us. The Conservatives have been central to creating the UK as it is today. I’m 45 and the Tories have been in power for two thirds of my life. How did they get into such a state that they bet their future on a leader whose frozen inarticulateness alone – evident within ten seconds of watching her – made political catastrophe close to inevitable?

Nor does it hold to put all the blame on party rules. Conservative MPs have to take responsibility for voting Truss into the final two candidates this summer who were then put forward to the wider membership in a final run-off. That is evidence enough of a departure from sound judgement. How did a political party built on pragmatism and a nose for power reach such a state of desperation that it allowed Liz Truss into the frame, let alone into No 10?

A useful lens here is institutional collapse. How do institutions, even formidable ones, lose the plot? The historian Niall Ferguson, in an essay titled “Complexity and Collapse”, argued that a complicated human system resembles a termite hill more than an Egyptian pyramid: “They operate somewhere between order and disorder… There comes a moment when complex systems ‘go critical’.”

For the Conservative Party, this “go critical” moment was the 2016 EU referendum. The tradition of breadth and compromise – qualities that define the best of conservatism – have never recovered from the carnage of David Cameron’s decision to hold a vote.

The party has been disintegrating ever since. In June 2016, following the Brexit vote, Michael Gove called a press conference and declared that Boris Johnson – who he had observed closely during the referendum – didn’t have the character to be prime minister. But it was precisely Johnson’s lack of character that had made him such an effective Brexiteer: he had a story to tell, why worry about facts or reality? This kind of fault-line has remained unrepaired ever since.

Brexit as a movement has proved incompatible with the qualities required for stable government. In these pages six years ago, I termed it the “Brexit Plague”, arguing that “like a superbug, Brexit inhabits its host spokesmen and women before choking the life out of them. The illness takes a horrible course, first imbuing the victim with great energy and enthusiasm, as though the ailment was in fact a cheering tonic.” Truss is the latest in a long line of victims who have perceived themselves as beneficiaries of the Brexiteer right-wing of the Tory party. And it hasn’t ended well for any of them.

A second factor that influenced the Conservative Party’s headlong lurch into Trussonomics is a sense of guilt over Covid lockdowns. Liberty is the closest concept the Tories have to a founding principle – and, under their instruction, Britain locked down longer and harder than many other countries. A sector of the Conservative Party is ashamed that it allowed such a severe infringement of civil liberties. “We lost the argument, the left won, and the whole state moved significantly towards social democracy,” a conservative friend put it to me recently.

This is close to the heart of the present chaos. When institutions seek redemptive purity they are most prone to lethal self-harm. Urged on by an uneasy conscience, they double down on hardcore values. (There is an analogy here with Labour’s introspection, following Tony Blair’s premiership and his decision to support the Iraq War.)

Given Truss’s evident incompetence, it can only be assumed that her backers – in think tanks, in parliament and among the party membership – just wanted someone who was “very conservative”. (Let’s leave for another time the fact that being “very conservative”, or very anything, isn’t very conservative, as conservatism is founded on moderation.) Truss certainly honoured her part of the deal dutifully: a very conservative ideologue immediately set about advocating conservative policies – without hesitation, texture, nuance or timing. Off we go! Unchain Britannia! Incentivise the revenue generators! Unleash the beast!

[See also: Can Rishi Sunak escape the Tories’ death cult?]

When it turned out that Truss combined a scarcely believable inability to communicate alongside embarrassing over-eagerness, the party promptly panicked. That panic, though entirely rational, is hard to forgive because it was so predictable.

This leads to another rule of thumb: an institution loses its grip when it stops seeking the best candidate to lead, and also if it begins to establish a pattern of abandoning leaders for exhibiting the exact qualities that it had first promoted them for.

Imagine presenting to a hundred serious organisations a leadership choice of either Rishi Sunak or Truss, to master a brief and project authority during turbulent times. How many of those hundred organisations would choose Truss over Sunak? A handful? One? The Conservative Party was out there on its own, answerable to different rules, following its own dreams.

Which is a problem for anyone who gets caught up in them. Theresa May was appointed to fuse together two furiously irreconcilable wings of the Conservative Party, fresh from an internal war over the Brexit referendum. May took tortured compromise to the point of masochism, but the deeper point is that there wasn’t a compromise to strike.

Johnson was elevated with an eye on cobbling together a cunning majority by combining his personal brand of cynical populism with a convenient relationship with the truth. (The view that Johnson is a “serial winner” underestimates how lucky he was with his opponent, Jeremy Corbyn.) Having done what he does, Johnson was eased out for being mendacious.

The Truss interlude can be understood as the slightly random appearance of a “very conservative person” immediately bursting into flames when they enacted very conservative policies.

None of these leaders acted out of character. The Tories got exactly what they asked for, only to tire of it when the leader’s personality was more widely understood. An uncomfortable logic follows: when the country finds out what the Conservative Party has known all along, the Conservative Party promptly changes horses.

All of which makes you wonder how the Conservatives will navigate today’s mess. The previous leadership election taught us relatively little about Sunak or Truss, but a great deal about the Conservatives’ internal conflicts. Can they get over those divisions this time around?

That can only begin with a reckoning. First, whatever thought process led to Truss needs to be reversed immediately and irrevocably. Secondly, the party should grasp that the public’s tolerance is running out because the underlying economic challenges are getting harder all the time.

The American investor and thinker Howard Marks paraphrased George Soros’s economic theory of reflexivity – which suggests that the efforts of investors to master the market affect the market that they’re trying to master. Marks asked: “How would golf be if the course played back, if the efforts of golfers to put their shot in the right place caused the right place to become the wrong place? What if the environment is a dependent variable?”

Though Marks was discussing investment behaviour, his point applies obliquely to political behaviour. The appropriateness of a strategy, in “real world” situations, alters the terrain: our decisions become part of the context we are seeking to navigate.

In my last golf analogy, Liz Truss, appraising what she imagined to be a short and easy par three, anticipated a cruisy six iron followed by a tap-in – and applause all round. The fact of having misread the course so badly caused the green to move further and further out of her range. The more she said, “Look, it’s only just over there,” the more it wasn’t. Truss’s blind swinging didn’t just deflate her own confidence, but caused collective confidence to erode that the course could be managed at all, even by better players. Just as mastery encourages the perception of tractability, incompetence creates the inverse.

[See also: Will Liz Truss try to undermine Rishi Sunak from the backbenches?]

Which is why the last viable solution for the Tories is to start over. By which I mean to accept how things really are, rather than how they wish things to be. The only criterion should be promoting and empowering the most serious people they can muster.

The Conservative Party was right to get rid of Boris Johnson. But it then wasted a whole summer in a surreal conversation with itself that resulted in a poor leader. Now, through luck more than judgement, arriving at Rishi Sunak as prime minister and Jeremy Hunt as chancellor could prove good enough to restore authority and ensure their survival – which would be more than they deserve.

Ed Smith’s new book “Making Decisions: Putting the Human Back in the Machine” is published by Williams Collins

This article appears in the 26 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Disorder