The Conservative Party Must Take the Blame for the Truss Catastrophe
Liz Truss is a merely a creature of a party and its press supporters who are now desperately distancing themselves from her, writes Adam Bienkov
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Liz Truss is now, in the words of former Chancellor George Osborne, “Prime Minister in name only”.
In the past week, she has been forced to sack her closest political ally, abandon the central tax-cutting agenda of her entire premiership, apologise to the nation on television, and watch as her new Chancellor ripped up almost every pledge she had made to the country.
In a prime ministerial statement to camera on Monday morning, Jeremy Hunt confirmed that he would reverse the vast majority of Truss’ growth plan, along with her flagship plan to subsidise household energy bills for the next two years.
Later, Truss was forced to sit in ghostly silence as Hunt repeated his plans to the House of Commons. As MPs mocked her silent presence, she departed to meet with the Chair of the 1922 Committee, who told her that large numbers of her own MPs have now turned against her.
Within hours, she was grovelling in front of a committee of her party’s backbenchers, before hosting a “reception” for her own Cabinet in a desperate attempt to hold off an outright mutiny.
The effect of these overlapping layers of humiliation is clear. One poll on Monday gave Labour a 36-point lead, while another on Wednesday suggests that 80% of the public now have an unfavourable opinion of the Prime Minister, with just 10% still having a favourable opinion.
Even the Conservative-supporting press have all but abandoned her. In a front page splash, the previously ultra-loyal Daily Mail declared that she is “in office but not in power” and told Conservative MPs to decide “whether the loss of trust in Miss Truss is terminal”. The Murdoch-owned Sunday Times went further this weekend, calling on Truss to step aside and call an immediate general election, which the Labour Party would almost certainly win.
You do not need to be a Kremlinologist to see where this is all going. Without the support of the press, her own MPs or the public – and with her entire governing agenda now dictated by others – it is only a matter of time before she is forced to concede that the game is up.
The Blame Game
But while the Conservative Party is now desperately seeking to distance itself from Liz Truss’ calamitous time in office, it is worth pointing out that nothing we have seen in recent weeks is an aberration. Far from being an outlier on the extreme edge of her party, Truss is in fact very much in the centre of the modern Conservative movement.
Indeed, while her plans to implement a massive package of unfunded tax cuts did meet some resistance from her rival Rishi Sunak, they were not a great departure from the plans of the other leadership contenders.
As Byline Times covered in these pages at the time, almost all of the Conservative candidates had plans for significant tax cuts, which inevitably would have to be paid for by cuts to public services. Even Jeremy Hunt, who was forced to abandon his own bid for the leadership in the early stages, was committed to a similar programme.
In some respects, Hunt was an even more hardline tax-cutter than Truss. Rather than just call for the planned corporation tax increase to 25p to be scrapped – as Truss did – Hunt wanted to go further by cutting it to just 15p. In his earlier bid for the job against Boris Johnson in 2019, he called for it to be cut to just 12.5p.
And while the Conservative-supporting press is also now trying to distance itself from the Truss catastrophe, it is just weeks since those same newspapers were lauding both her and the disastrous set of extreme libertarian economic measures she helped unleash on the country.
If anything good has come from the chaos of recent weeks it is that this agenda, which first originated in the opaquely-funded think tanks of London’s Tufton Street, has now been so utterly discredited.
Truss’ Economic ‘Shock Doctrine’is Pushing the UK to the BrinkAdam Bienkov
Yet while the Conservative Party and its supporters may have now abandoned the extreme libertarianism of Tufton Street, other older orthodoxies remain firmly in place.
Even though much of Truss’ tax cut plans have now been junked, her plans to pay for them with yet another wave of Government austerity have not. On Monday, Hunt confirmed that the Government will now implement a series of damaging cuts to public services, despite Truss insisting just last week that she would “absolutely” not cut public spending.
In order to implement this new wave, Hunt has assembled an economic advisory committee staffed by asset managers from big banks like JP Morgan, as well as Rupert Harrison, former Chief of Staff to George Osborne.
Now Hunt – who once labelled Osborne’s success in implementing austerity in the early 2010s as “genius” – is now poised to implement an even more deeply damaging series of cuts to public services. After a decade in which government budgets have been ground down by low growth, and real-terms cuts, Hunt’s plans risk the complete collapse of certain parts of the public sector.
Some of the cuts will be more noticeable than others. One of the first areas targeted by Osborne was capital spending. The result has been a visible deterioration in the public realm over the past decade, along with dangerously low productivity and sluggish growth.
Hunt is likely to deepen these cuts when he reveals his full plans at the end of the month. After declaring during her conference speech that her central mission is “growth, growth and growth”, the Prime Minister is now likely to prevail over a plan almost designed to curtail the UK’s growth even further.
Other areas likely to be targeted include benefit payments. These proposed cuts, which have already met some resistance from Conservative MPs, would cause real hardship and poverty at a time of rising inflation and falling wages. Yet even this would not be enough for Hunt to meet his targets.
If he really is determined to push forward with this next wave of austerity, then he will be forced to also impose big cuts to things like schools, hospitals and social care.
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He has no mandate for any of this. Boris Johnson won the last general election on a promise to actually increase public spending, with hundreds of millions of pounds more spent on the NHS and education. It was this broadly social democratic agenda, which helped him win seats in parts of the country the Conservative Party had never won before.
It is Truss’ abandonment of that agenda which is largely responsible for the party’s subsequent collapse in the polls. By doubling-down on this during a time of deep recession, Hunt risks an even further collapse in support for his party.
There is an alternative to all this. Opinion polls now suggest that the public is overwhelmingly in favour of higher European-levels of taxation in order to fund better public services. After a decade of austerity, and Brexit-imposed isolation, polls suggest that the British people have finally seen through the damaging prescription that Osborne and his successors have imposed on the country over the past 12 years.
But, just as the public is heading in one direction, the Conservative Party now seems determined to head in the other. The likely result is a Labour government at some point before January 2025.
Before that happens, the Conservative Government and its supporters in the press should first face up to their responsibility for the political and social calamity we are now witnessing unfold before us.