At last Boris Johnson is leaving 10 Downing Street. His successor will need to make a major change of direction if her tenure is not to be very very short.
Dear Prime Minister Truss (yes it sounds odd to me as well),
Congratulations on being elected, albeit by the 172,000, ie 0.3% of the electorate who had the chance to vote. I know 57.4% looks like a large majority – at least it is more than 52% – but do not be deceived.
I hope you express your gratitude to Mr Sunak, who obligingly lent you some of his parliamentary votes, misguidedly believing that he could leave you standing in the final stages. His motives may not have been the purest, but please don’t forget to thank him for getting you to where you are today. Without his input we might now be crowning Prime Minister Mordaunt. She did, after all, come within 8 votes of beating you.
Mind your back
Remember that as far as we can tell there are 250 Conservative MPs who never once voted for you, even when confronted with a very limited choice indeed in their final ballot. They are a fairly mixed bunch with many different motives for resenting your ascent to power, but trying to keep them together will be like herding cats.
Remember too that despite the expulsion of the brightest and the best by your predecessor in 2019, your Parliamentary party does still contain some men and women of principle, it must do, all parties do. These are people who believe in making decisions based on evidence and who believe in the rule of law. Many of them are screaming in discomfort when they see what has become of your party and what abuses they are being whipped into voting for. Think hard before posing them with impossible dilemmas. The first of these is the manifestly illegal Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which itself may prove to be a pointless gesture anyway as it may languish in Parliamentary ping-pong until after the party‘s inevitable defeat in the next general election.
Beware of fantasy economics. Your mentor, Patrick Minford, is not a serious economist, as the vast majority of other economists will tell you. As of course will Rishi Sunak, after all even a stopped clock is right twice a day. There is no evidence for the belief that tax cuts for the wealthy will help cut inflation and grow the economy. And you are not, as you pretend to be, totally innumerate. Who was it who authored the paper The Value of Mathematics in 2009?
And in choosing your cabinet, don’t be mesmerised by the fact that you owe your success to the ERG. A cabinet full of John Redwood lookalikes is in nobody’s interest. As Mark Harper has just reminded you, unless you ensure balance you will split your party and shorten your tenure.
Dog eats dog
Remember above all that you are in a dog eat dog party. You have endorsed policies that are calculated to win over the Conservative membership, but that is now over and done – that group cannot now touch you. Those same policies will sink you in your opinion polls. Remember how much footage you and Mr Sunak together generated during the hustings which can be used mercilessly against you by the opposition. Remember also that more than 2/3 of your MPs never wanted you to be their leader, an unprecedented figure. And if they are watching nothing else, they are watching the opinion polls. Many are already champing at the bit and calling for the return of Boris Johnson, not because they have any delusions about his competence or probity, but because they are feeling desperate and are looking a massive general election defeat in the face. Don’t get too complacent, and please don’t bother changing the wallpaper in Number 10, execrable as Carrie Johnson‘s taste might be. It’s not worth your while.
Remember your former self
Before the referendum you made some speeches and wrote some articles which were almost articulate (whatever has gone wrong since then?). You told us what folly it would be to leave the European Union.
“I know how difficult it is getting products into markets like the US and China. DEFRA has just filled in an 1,000 page form which is one part of an eight stage process to get British beef and lamb and we’ve still got to get a resolution passed by Congress to allow that British lamb into the market. So I think we’ve got to be very careful about taking that single market for granted and being outside that single market, and the single market isn’t something that is a sexy, exciting thing to explain. But it is really crucial to the amount of growth we’ve seen in food and drink exports over the past 40 years. It is really crucial to that.”Your Speech to the Food and Drink Industry Dinner [Warning of Dangers of Brexit and Leaving Single Market] (19 May 2016)
“I believe the choice is clear; we cannot trade opportunities for insecurities. If we were to leave the EU, the alternatives – in disease control, trade barriers and our ability to influence welfare standards – are all unknown. The EU has opened doors, both to individuals, through professional development and working abroad, and the sector as a whole. If we vote to remain, we will continue to reap the benefits – for our animals, our businesses and the veterinary profession.”EU membership – benefits for animal health and welfare (30 April 2016) What new evidence has come in since then to show that you were wrong?
On the contrary, all the evidence shows that the old Liz Truss was absolutely right. The worst predictions of Project Fear have come to pass. British people are the only people in any European country who have lost their freedom of movement, as most people who have tried to travel during the summer, and most expatriates in EU countries, will tell you. We have a massive skills shortfall in the NHS, in caring, agriculture, veterinary services, hospitality, haulage and many other sectors. The government’s own OBR projections put the shrinkage of GDP at 4%, and the last year has shown that to be if anything an under-estimate. The post-Covid recovery in other countries has not been seen in the UK, so it is not down to the pandemic. Exporters are feeling the pain, and many, even those who have been posterboys for the Department of trade, have experienced a collapse of their European markets. Your much vaunted trade deals in Australia and New Zealand have been celebrated as triumphs – in those countries. They are projected by economists to make no measurable difference to the UK economy, but they have been designed to introduce an uneven playing field, allowing in low quality produce, undercutting British farmers and putting many out of business, while simultaneously harming the environment by generating millions of avoidable sea miles of travel, and making it more difficult to export to our European neighbours. On top of all that, cut off from our former EU allies, we are experiencing vastly higher fuel price inflation than they are.
So congratulations, you were right first time, please hold that thought.
Remember who your friends are
The whole Brexit process has alienated many, if not all, of our European allies. Instead of trying to mend fences, you won cheap applause from your basest followers by insulting Macron. What inspired you to say “the jury is still out“ in response to the question of whether he was a friend or foe? Yes, Julia Hartley Brewer may have found it a good answer, but surely that is more than enough reason to think twice about its wisdom? Do you think that people outside the UK do not follow our media? And please learn something from the calm and dignified response he gave when asked about your unwise remarks.
And while on the subject of allies, what happened to the “special relationship“ with United States? Remember that one of the few things which attract bipartisan support among US politicians is Ireland and the sanctity of the Good Friday Agreement. The approach you’re taking on the Northern Ireland protocol may get some halting murmurs of support from the DUP, although even they, having previously been thrown under the bus, are saying, to coin a phrase, “the jury is still out“. And what you are in danger of doing, in your vain attempts to placate the DUP, is not just putting peace in danger and risking a trade war with the EU, but also poisoning relationships with the Americans, and that will continue to be the case even if, heaven forbid, the Republicans come back into power.
At a time of economic crisis, war in Europe, and a still raging pandemic around the world, we need our friends more than ever.
You have few allies at home or abroad, and you can’t rely on Putin or Xi, for obvious reasons. Nor is there any point in trying the Japanese, after your government’s hard Brexit policies have wrecked their European car manufacturing model, built up painfully over many years. You may think you can fall back on your new best friend, Paul Kagame of Rwanda. Don’t count on even that. He has had his £120 million pound bung in return for absolutely nothing, and he knows as you know that there is no more where that came from. The cupboard is bare.
Save your legacy– if you can!
So in the relatively short time remaining before either the electorate or your own disenchanted MPs take you out of your misery, think about whether there is anything you can do to protect your legacy.
Let me make one suggestion. It has become tradition for every Tory prime minister since Cameron to make his or her predecessor look good by being even worse. If you work very hard at it, there is still a chance that you may break that tradition. It is, after all, a low bar. But it will require a radical change of direction.
Good luck, Prime Minister, don’t blow it.
The author is Chair of Oxford for Europe. The opinions here are his own.
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