Politics

Liz Truss has kindly offered to ‘save the west’. But who will save her from her delusions? | Gaby Hinsliff

Liz Truss has kindly offered to ‘save the west’. But who will save her from her delusions? | Gaby Hinsliff

So it wasn’t just a bad dream, then. Liz Truss really did become prime minister, and that brief ensuing moment of madness really did happen. It must have done because she’s written a book about it, though given the brevity of her stay at No 10 it’s arguably less a memoir of her time there than a kind of extended Tripadvisor review. (Great location for central London; shame about the fleas.) And while calling it Ten Years to Save the West may suggest faintly deluded levels of self-belief, given Britain had to be saved from the author after less than seven weeks, it’s accidentally very revealing about the deeper reasons for that overconfidence and what they mean for the country.

Truss entered parliament in the golden Tory era of 2010, and prospered despite bosses who clearly grasped her faults. (Theresa May, she writes, wanted to sack her but didn’t feel strong enough; Boris Johnson’s allies have long suspected he promoted her to crowd the pitch for others he considered more of a serious threat.) In comparison with Labour politicians of the time, she was therefore playing politics mostly on the easy setting: one where the biggest newspapers bend over backwards to be kind, the City broadly shares your view of wealth creation, and a lack of serious challenge from the opposition makes it possible to believe that the facts of life will remain Conservative, regardless of what Conservatism itself actually morphs into.

The formative event of her career was Brexit, and her friends say the lesson she took from it – having reluctantly backed remain only after concluding that leaving was too risky – was that she should take more risks. Why not, when it was clearly now possible to pitch your tent well beyond whatever expert consensus considered reasonable and be lionised instead of punished – not only by your parliamentary colleagues, but also by the rightwing press and a good chunk of the voting public? The so-called establishment – broadly defined as anyone in public or commercial life unwilling to come along for the ideological ride – might still think your ideas were barking. But the moral of post-Brexit British politics and of Donald Trump’s rise to power was that they could be cowed into going along with it, just so long as you were popular. If the people believed, the experts would just have to find ways through whatever mess you’d made. (Or failing that, they could be sacked, as Truss writes that she considered doing to the Office for Budget Responsibility.) And while everyone in politics to some extent sensed that change, only Truss had the energy and ideological tunnel vision to really push it to the limit.

That Johnson could become and remain prime minister in defiance of everything his colleagues knew about his flaws must have only underlined the feeling that anything was possible. No wonder she wasn’t deterred when her own political agent told her it would be best if she didn’t actually win the leadership contest. No wonder, even now, that she still seems puzzled that it went wrong for her and not for a resurgent Trump, Nigel Farage, Suella Braverman or anyone else who would be a disaster if actually unleashed.

In the book, she wails first that the media failed to find enough people who could articulate her radical ideas so the public understood what she was trying to do, and second, that the economic and political establishment – having arguably understood only too well – blocked her. In other words, she is still trying to parse the problem in populist terms; it can’t be that the ideas were bad. It must be that the rightwing press failed in what she has learned to see as their job of spinning whatever old straw they’re tossed into gold, leaving the people too confused to overcome the experts. It’s a blatant rewriting of history, given she started out with plenty of cheerleaders in rightwing thinktanks who had helped to develop her reckless tax-cutting agenda and were rarely off the TV trying to promote it, while sympathetic newspapers initially tied themselves in knots to support her. But mostly, it’s a failure of imagination. She doesn’t seem to have considered that even the Daily Telegraph might have its breaking point, let alone the markets or her own colleagues.

That Truss’s premiership ended explosively is ultimately nobody’s fault but her own. But as with a spoilt child who can’t cope when someone finally says no, some of the blame belongs to those who for years overindulged the Conservative party, however extreme it became. A healthy dose of scrutiny and scepticism would, in retrospect, have better served not just the country’s interests but their own in the long term, given how much of the party’s reputation she took with her when she charged headlong over the cliff.

Having to battle a largely hostile media, a suspicious City or wary swing voters to get a hearing for your ideas is undoubtedly exhausting, as any Labour politician knows. Those headwinds do sometimes make for excessively slow, cautious progress. But they also deliver governments that have been thoroughly stress-tested, are used to facing resistance, and know how to make an argument rather than assuming it’s already been won. Even that may not be enough to save the west. But at the very least, they ought to be capable of outliving a lettuce.


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