There’s no reason to recap the pinnacle of Liz Truss’s political career. We’re all aware of the nightmarish October we endured last year with Truss at the helm. With Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s support, in one fell swoop Truss showed that the free-market, low-tax-for-the-wealthy economics pushed by numerous right wing think-tanks would utterly fail in the face of economic realities. Trying to force such policies through with no mandate did tremendous damage to Britain..
The Doctor of ‘Trussonomics’ saw a country in complete peril during a cost of living crisis. She took advantage of that disarray to try to force in low-tax, low regulation economics at exactly the worst time for the country. People needed hands-on support to help them live, not the hand-off of a vague promise that prosperity would ‘trickle down’ to them in years to come. This subsequently cemented her place as the shortest Prime Minister in history, with a whopping innings of 49 days.
With that outcome one would imagine her political career to be completely over. At best, she would be an embarrassment to the point where she couldn’t bear to be seen in Strangers’ Bar ever again. At worst, a tenure so completely damaging to the country and so lacking in empathy and compassion by the ‘libertarian’ wing of the Conservative party, that it ends any sort of credibility of Truss ever again. Either way, a decade or so ago, this type of political vandalism would be a career ender. Full stop.
Considering the speculation that when (rather than ‘if’) the Conservatives lose the next election, they will have to adjust and return to the centre of the political spectrum, why are we talking about Liz Truss? And why are there genuine discussions about a political return for the disgraced Prime Minister? One could argue it’s a sign of the times for a Conservative Party in a death spiral.
Even in the days following Truss being ousted from office, there was never really a sense that she would go away. In her final speech as Prime Minister in October 2022, she wasn’t apologetic – she maintained that tax cuts should continue – despite the clear damage that even the very announcement of that intention to cut tax did to the UK economy. It was absolute fantasy politics; grounded not in reality but in brute-force ‘we want to get our own way’ mentality.
Typically a Prime Minister forced out will have a period away from the spotlight. David Cameron resigned almost immediately as an MP after stepping down and until his surprise return spent 7 years in the political wilderness. [Update 14 November 2023: But now resurrected as Foreign Secretary.] Theresa May retreated to the backbenches to contribute on occasion to debates. Boris Johnson just disappeared entirely from the Commons, before trying another run at Tory leadership until the scandals caught up with him. Yet Truss could scarcely wait 100 days before leaping to the defence of her tenure with an exclusive article in the Telegraph, continuing yet again to propagate the ‘low-tax economy’ that was firmly rejected by 99% of the real world. The article was widely debunked as merely a puff-piece that twisted recent history, but it signalled not only the intention to promote false narratives about her tenure as Prime Minister but also a vain attempt to try to rescue her tarnished image. Despite the humiliation, backers of Truss (mainly right wing think-tanks) were clearly keen to see her reputation restored.
That has been the trend of the last year or so for Truss. Whether it be in the UK or occasionally the US, Truss has been courting the key-note speaker scene for various think-tanks and Conservative organisations with the same messaging: ‘it wasn’t my fault, I was right, I was ousted by nefarious (woke) forces before we really got going – and we will try it again’. All nonsense and, at the time, generally dismissed by many as not worth listening to. Yet this brings us to the last month or so as the Tory conference season rolled around and Truss bizarrely seemed popular.
This is popularity within those who would typically attend Tory conference. At that conference in October, Truss drew a ‘huge crowd’ of Tory members, as they packed into the hall for her speech whilst other current Cabinet Ministers drew very little support. The speech was the same as before, calling for tax cuts, vaguely libertarian demands to ‘stop banning things’ and, worryingly, echoing the Trump campaign slogan of “make Britain grow again”. This was re-hash of her Telegraph articles, or previous speeches. The crowd she drew knew full well what she would say but wanted to make a statement by supporting her.
Her mantra that neo-conservatism and libertarianism will make Britain grow appeals to a Tory membership who had been subjected to an otherwise exceptionally depressing Tory conference. However one could argue it signals the ever-present intention of the Conservative Party to drift further to the right. Truss herself probably headed up the most right-wing Government the UK has ever had; a bold claim but one echoed by Ed Davey. The ‘tax cuts for the wealthy’ ideology – one not voted for by the British public at all – is as right-wing a fiscal policy as one can get. Truss also initially appointed Suella Braverman as Home Secretary, one of the most right wing the country has ever had. Truss didn’t get an opportunity to set out a social agenda due to her early resignation; but the signs of her rhetoric after office shows it would’ve been tremendously right-wing.
The claim that the Conservative Party is moving to the centre is not borne out by this hard-right support. Truss was able to come back to Conservative politics, get a cheering crowd at conference, bray from the sidelines at Rishi Sunak about her ‘growth commission’ and ‘alternative budget’ and threaten Sunak’s majority with a potential rebellion with almost no opposition. This shows there’s no great desire from the Conservatives to constrain the hard-right of the party. There have been further worrying developments too. Nigel Farage appeared at a Conservative conference for the first time since the 1980s and continues to toy with the Conservative base about re-joining the party and becoming leader. One couldn’t imagine a more insane proposition a decade ago, yet here we are. As well as that, at Conference, Suella Braverman delivered a monstrous speech, that has rightly been dubbed “a modern version of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ address”, in front of a captive and cheering audience. The more ‘sensible’ of the Conservative ministers at Conference got no such fervor or interest in their appearances; the excitement of the Conservative membership was squarely on divisive and hard-right figures like Truss, Braverman and Farage.
Recent weeks have been a clear indicator that many Conservatives want a drift further to the right, with fantasy economics and xenophobic immigration policies. With the centre-right in the Conservative party decimated, not least by Boris Johnson, and with seat losses in the next general election, it’s hard to see how the centre can mount a comeback. Yet figures like Truss somehow energise the Tory base, despite a proven track record of promising the world and delivering nothing. The trend will likely continue into Opposition. Imagine Suella Braverman or Kemi Badenoch becoming Leader of the Opposition, – firing out misinformation after misinformation at Keir Starmer. Imagine too a Liz Truss being still in the picture, leading the libertarian wing and aiming for a position within a hard-right opposition party. The indicators are all there, the membership base seems to want it, and the clock seemingly is ticking.
[Ed: Updated 14 Nov 2023]
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