Britain on the Brink‘It’s Not Just Liz Truss — it’s Brexit’
In his editorial from the October 2022 print edition of Byline Times, Peter Jukes argues that Liz Truss is ushering in the final phase of the Brexit project
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It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. When David Cameron took over as leader of the Conservatives in 2005, he wanted to transform its electoral reputation as the ‘nasty party’. With the help of ecologically friendly policies, more ethnic diversity in his MPs and a vow to preserve the National Health Service, he hoped to turn the sluggish rump of Thatcherism into a bright butterfly to bedazzle and attract a wider electorate, and become the ‘true heirs to Blair’.
The credit crunch, austerity and Coalition with the Lib Dems took some of the shine off Cameron’s colours. But electoral success brought more problems. Devouring Nick Clegg’s party in the 2015 General Election, Cameron lost the deflective protection of his left flank, and it was his attempt to destroy the right flank – to remove the threat from UKIP once and for all – that really ended in disaster. His gamble of the EU Referendum in 2016 and his sudden resignation as leader destroyed the possibilities of a more centrist Conservative Party.
Brexit turned Cameron’s butterfly into the chrysalis of something much darker and backward-looking.
The last six years of Brexit-related chaos – four prime ministers and six chancellors – have underlined that the ‘project fear’ he and George Osborne muttered about during the referendum was, if anything, an understatement of the economic and political damage to come.
Boris Johnson and Michael Gove might not have realised the ugly forces they were incubating. Their white faces on the morning of the Vote Leave victory suggested they were stunned by the catastrophe of their own success. Like the would-be Broadway conmen in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, their scam to fleece investors only worked if their terrible play Springtime for Hitler was a flop and nobody looked closely at the books. With a hit on their hands, they would all end up in prison.
Theresa May tried to contain the extreme forces rising within her party over the next three years with a moderate-to-hard Brexit agreement: no Single Market or freedom of movement, but alignment with EU standards to reduce trade barriers and with a workaround to avoid a hard land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in breach of the Good Friday Agreement.
But May’s Parliament was beset by rebellions and plots. The tricky economic uncoupling from Europe both inflamed and was inflamed by various cultural conflicts around identity, immigration, national history and Empire. By now, Brexit was fracturing into a myriad of demands, with more and more extreme versions of what ‘Leave’ actually meant gaining currency and – like Gresham’s Law – driving the good faith plans out with calls for the catastrophic cliff edge of a ‘no deal’ exit.
Like so many religious or political utopias, the ‘sunlit uplands’ of leaving the EU became an impossible promise: any failure to achieve it or heresy from it a source of terror and turmoil. With Nigel Farage still outriding on the right, and the powerful parliamentary European Research Group conspiring against her, May was toppled and replaced with the most prominent face of the Vote Leave campaign – Boris Johnson — who finally became ‘world king’ and entered Number 10 in July 2019.
Johnson’s first few months were tumultuous and typically rule-breaking. First, he tried to unlawfully prorogue Parliament, then expelled moderate rebels, and finally went to the country in a rare winter election with the promise to ‘Get Brexit Done’. It worked, for a while. Compared to the apparent paralysis of Parliament and the Labour Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn, Johnson won the Conservatives their biggest parliamentary majority since 1987. But almost immediately, the pandemic changed the political landscape.
Johnson’s Brexit was – essentially – a cultural Brexit. His effective appeal was a mishmash of nationalist rhetoric and what (former Conservative Attorney General and expelled rebel) Dominic Grieve calls economic “boosterism”. With his half-remembered Latin tags and Shakespeare quotations, Johnson embodied a new kind of ‘One Nation’ Conservative: English nationalism with an Etonian accent, which turns its own bigotries into a joke.
Much mockery was made of foreigners and dastardly Europeans, but the proffer was – at least to the white working-class in northern cities and towns – that he would act in the best interests of his narrowly-conceived nation. Johnson’s ‘levelling-up’ programme and his towns and cities plan may have been poorly executed, badly funded, and used in a ‘pork barrel’ way to prop up Conservative seats. But even while procuring donations from oligarchs, providing a VIP lane for commercial COVID contracts, and redecorating his Downing Street apartments in lavish style – at least he made a gesture towards public solidarity.
Johnson’s downfall came because he broke even this meagre promise of a bouncy nationalist Brexit. In the early days, he made people laugh; voters thought he would be a fun person to party with. But then the public discovered that Johnson broke the lockdown rules he had imposed on us – and he lied about. He went to private parties we weren’t invited to while the Queen mourned Prince Philip and the rest of us paid silent, socially-distanced, respect to hundreds of thousands of lost relatives. In our darkest hours, he wasn’t laughing with us, but at us.
Johnson’s replacement Liz Truss has none of this personal and symbolic baggage to weigh her down. She doesn’t have the problem of the public souring with her charisma, because she has no charisma at all. She doesn’t lie about levelling-up or inequality, because she honestly doesn’t care. Her ‘culture wars’ are limited to posing as a tribute act for Margaret Thatcher.
There’s nothing like a new leader, free from the encumbrance of expectations, to achieve a fresh start for a failing party. Judging by the opinion polls, Truss is nothing like a new leader to achieve a fresh start. Why?
From Cameron’s gilded butterfly, through May and Johnson’s chrysalis, the Conservative Party has gone through a whole Brexit reverse metamorphosis. It is now reduced to Truss’ primitive worm of an idea: an economic proposition to ‘go for growth’ while ignoring the most obvious constraint to growth – Brexit.
We can all see that the Truss and Kwarteng mini budget is an extreme version of American libertarian capitalism that was discredited 40 years ago (and before that during the 1930s). That it has been drawn from a nexus of ‘think tanks’ with many links to US dark money donations and corporate interests in fossil fuels, tobacco and private healthcare is perhaps the only rational explanation for why these discredited theories still survive at all.
Cutting taxes for the rich and reducing government expenditure on infrastructure and benefits at this economic moment is the surest way to ensure a looming economic recession turns into a deeper crisis. Already, Truss and Kwarteng’s market fundamentalist advisors (many drawn from the Tufton Street lobbying network) have proved they do not understand market fundamentals.
The pound has crashed to its lowest level since the 1980s. On top of the rise in import and energy prices, the lack of confidence in UK Government debt has caused a credit rating downgrade and a hike in interest rates for mortgage payers. This nasty trifecta would normally be countered by cheaper exports if Brexit hadn’t frozen our borders by leaving the EU as drastically as it did. Compared to other OECD countries, which have seen exports rise by 10-20% since the Coronavirus lockdowns, ours have flatlined. At 8.3%, Britain now runs one of the highest trade deficits in developed or emerging markets, and the worst since records began in 1955.
In the words of former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, Britain – at the bottom of the G7 league for growth – is “like an emerging market turning itself into a submerging market”.
So, in the end, Brexit really does mean Brexit: Britain’s exit and isolation from the leading economic nations of the world. It may have been disguised by the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but there is now no longer any way we can avoid it. Leaving the EU under the conditions we did has been a massive act of self-harm or, as American economist and former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, Adam Posen put it, “the first time in history a nation has declared a trade war on itself”.
The music has stopped and – rather than Cameron, May or Johnson – it’s Liz Truss who faces the consequences of a decade of Conservative divide-and-rule. Her demise, and that of her party, won’t solve the underlying problem of the dire state of our trading relationship with our nearest neighbours. But it will hasten the final burial of a bankrupt idea whose rotten stink can longer be ignored.
This article was published as an editorial in the October 2022 print edition of Byline Times. Buy your copy now