Johnsonism Gone Sour Liz Truss as Prime Minister Will Drag Us to Disaster
The UK’s incoming PM has paid tribute to Boris Johnson, saying he is ‘admired from Kyiv to Carlisle’. But having accepted the worst parts of his politics, she has abandoned anything that made his agenda palatable, writes Adam Bienkov
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All governments eventually run out of steam. No matter how all-powerful or popular they may seem, the public eventually have enough.
We saw it in the late 1990s when the Major-led Conservatives turned in on themselves after 18 years in power; and we saw it again in the late 2000s when the seemingly unstoppable New Labour machine finally came grinding to a halt.
Over the past decade this process has only accelerated.
When Liz Truss enters Downing Street, she will do so as the fourth leader of a Conservative Government in just 12 years, after each of her predecessors ended their careers in either failure, disgrace or both. She will inherit an economy on its knees and a parliamentary party which is deeply divided and among whom she holds only minority support.
Her first act will be to decide whether to make a series of massive U-turns on energy bills and taxes – or abandon millions of people to destitution and poverty. Whatever she decides, she will have to steer her Government and the country through the most difficult and protracted economic crisis the UK has faced for decades. And she will do so from a position in which her own poll ratings, and those of her party, remain deeply in the mud.
To say that the outlook for her Government is bleak is to wildly understate it. In order to emerge from this crisis and win the next general election, she will require greater political skill and instincts than all of her predecessors put together.
If she holds those abilities, then she has kept them very well hidden. Instead, what we have witnessed over the course of the Conservative Party leadership contest is a politician whose instincts are deeply flawed and whose priorities are massively skewed.
Rather than indicate to the country that she is determined to protect those in most need, Truss has at every turn made it clear that her number one priority is to protect those who need her protection least.
In recent days and weeks, she has ruled out imposing new taxes on oil and gas companies making billions of pounds in unexpected profits, while saying that she does not want to give “handouts” to people in need. She has continued with this line, even after she no longer needed to appeal to Conservative Party members.
When asked by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday whether it was fair that her planned tax cuts will significantly benefit the rich at the expense of the poor, Truss replied “yes it is fair” – before adding that she believed it was wrong to concentrate on “redistribution” to those who need it most.
The conventional wisdom in Westminster is that she will rapidly pivot away from these hardline stances now that she has become Prime Minister. Maybe she will. There is no obvious route to victory at the next election without the Government spending huge amounts of money on helping the public through this crisis.
However, everything else we have seen from Truss suggests that her instincts are in the exact opposite direction.
Nowhere is this clearer than in her reported intention to make Jacob Rees-Mogg her Business and Energy Secretary – a man who has suggested that his priorities are to slash the size of the state, whittle down workers’ rights, and strip-back environmental protections. Reports in this weekend’s newspapers suggest that these priorities are also shared by our incoming Prime Minister.
For years, Boris Johnson’s administration denied having any such plans and attacked anyone who suggested that his Government would use Brexit as a means to turn Britain into a sort of low tax, low regulation Singapore-by-the-Atlantic.
But in Liz Truss we now have a Prime Minister who no longer feels the need to pretend otherwise. Indeed, on a whole series of issues – from taxation to workers’ rights and the environment – Truss has made it clear that she plans to shift her Government well to the right of her predecessor.
As she said in her acceptance speech on Monday afternoon: “I was elected as a conservative and I will govern as a Conservative.”
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When the Conservative contest first began, I argued in these pages that the Conservatives looked determined to keep ‘Johnsonism without Johnson’. In reality, what they have ended up with is Johnsonism gone sour.
Truss has kept all of the worst parts of Johnsonism – the lying, the U-turns, the endless ‘culture wars’, the attacks on public institutions – without keeping any of the parts of Johnsonism that made that agenda palatable to millions of people who wouldn’t normally vote Conservative.
Over the last two months, it has become clear to many of those same people that the UK faces two major crises on the environment and the economy. And yet, rather than face up squarely to either of these, Truss has spent her summer talking about fringe issues like banning solar farms, gender neutral toilets and getting rid of motorway speed limits.
Whatever his many faults, Boris Johnson’s relentless self-interest meant that he was often forced into bending to the public mood to ensure his survival in Number 10. For Johnson, who spent much of his earlier career trading in climate change denial while railing against state handouts, that meant embracing the green agenda while pouring billions of pounds into helping people through the pandemic.
While his interventions were often too little and too late, he was never prevented by political dogma from doing what he needed to do in order to survive. While that self-interest often worked against the public interest, it sometimes worked in favour of it.
Truss’ priorities are quite different. While much has been made of her shift from being a Lib Dem Republican, to a Cameroon Remainer, to a Johnsonite Brexiter, there does appear to be a central core to her beliefs that Johnson lacked.
“There’s a basic social libertarianism there,” one senior Conservative, who has worked inside government with Truss, told Byline Times.
“She generally takes the position that’s good for her career, but that is twinned with a genuine libertarian element, which I think is real and is actually consistent with being a Liberal Democrat, and a Remainer, and an anti-monarchist,” they said. “That sort of slight anti-establishment, classical liberal thing is real.”
Truss has deep associations, both through her own writings and through the people she has hired, with a series of free market and libertarian think tanks. Unlike Johnson, who courted these people, without ever really fully buying into their ideology, Truss appears determined to accept their prescription for the country even when it appears quite obviously detrimental to her own political interests.
Whether this really stems from deep-seated political principle, or merely her own political incompetence, remains to be seen. Her record of making unforced errors during her campaign – on everything from cutting the wages of civil servants outside London, to suggesting that France may be an enemy of the United Kingdom – suggests that the latter explanation is more convincing than the former.
But while she has regularly been written-off as a joke, Truss has somehow managed to survive the wreckage of the Johnson era in order to become Prime Minister. It is not impossible to imagine a scenario in which she somehow manages a similar act of survival at the next general election.
For now that looks unlikely, but whatever happens in two years’ time, the fact remains that the Conservative Party has chosen a new Prime Minister whose political and ideological instincts appear to be the exact opposite of what is required to get the country through this current crisis.
That decision is unlikely to end well for either Liz Truss, her Government – or the country.
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