British Conservatives used to boast that they were the "world’s most successful political party", and with good reason. The Economist magazine congratulated Boris Johnson’s general election victory in December 2019 by noting that "the Conservative Party has been in the business of winning elections since the 1830s". Throughout the 19th century, they fought with the Liberals, but by the 20th century the Liberal party faded away. Then, as The Economist noted: "In the 20th century the Conservatives held office for longer than any other party. In the 21st century they are on course to hold power, either in their own right or as the dominant partner in a coalition, for 14 of the first 24 years. Not bad for an outfit that John Stuart Mill dismissed as 'the stupid party'."
But now Mill, that great English philosopher, might be looking down from heaven with a smile of vindication on his lips. After one month of the leadership of Prime Minister Liz Truss, the "world’s most successful political party" is in meltdown. It has, as Mill suggested, performed stupidly. The Truss government, most notably Chancellor of Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng, has tanked the British economy, crashed the pound, and the latest opinion polls suggest the Conservative party would not merely lose a general election but be annihilated, reduced to a handful of seats. On Sunday, Ms Truss said she stood firmly behind her policy of tax cuts for the most wealthy. On Monday, Mr Kwarteng abandoned the policy in a screeching U-turn. An election might not take place until 2024, yet the self-inflicted wounds of confused Conservatives are on display during their annual conference this week in Birmingham.
It is impossible to predict what happens next. That’s because Conservative MPs themselves do not know. Should they – could they? – take the huge risk of unseating yet another failed leader and replace Ms Truss in another tedious episode of the Conservative party psychodrama? Could they change the rules and install Rishi Sunak, Ms Truss's rival and defeated leadership candidate, without another vote of party members? Would it be better to stick with Ms Truss and hope that somehow she learns from her mistakes?
Historically the Conservatives proved successful by balancing two competing characteristics – public loyalty to leaders and utter ruthlessness in getting rid of them. David Maxwell-Fyfe, a Conservative minister in the 1940s and 50s, boasted that the Tory party’s “secret weapon” was loyalty. He discovered otherwise when prime minister Harold Macmillan dismissed him and several other ministers in what was called the "night of the long knives". Mr Johnson was equally ruthless in punishing 21 Brexit rebels from his own party, most of whom are no longer MPs. So, might Ms Truss perhaps dismiss Mr Kwarteng, a friend of hers whose disastrous mini-budget (agreed with Ms Truss herself) created the current crisis? Or should she hope that, having reversed the politically toxic tax cuts for the wealthy amid austerity for everyone else, the markets will react favourably and she might live to fight another day?
The trouble is that hope is not a strategy. Even the most loyal Conservative MPs now see Ms Truss and Mr Kwarteng less as leaders and more as liabilities. The not-so-secret plotting will continue. So, almost certainly, will the political turmoil and unforced errors.
For example, King Charles III is, as the British magazine Perspective describes him on its cover this month, the "Green King". He cares deeply about the environment. Some years ago, I had a conversation with the future King at an organic food factory in Scotland. He was extremely well informed and clearly enthusiastic about organic farming, sustainable food, conservation and saving the planet from man-made global warming. Yet, it has now been leaked that King Charles wanted to attend the Cop27 climate change conference in Egypt, yet he has been forbidden from doing so by the Truss government.
This is yet another Truss blunder. King Charles has much to say on the future of the planet. He has a world audience, and a solid track record of leadership on environmental issues, unlike – for example – Ms Truss. But what is most interesting is who leaked the story to newspapers. It would not be the Prime Minister’s Office. So could it be sources in Buckingham Palace itself? We might never know, but what we do know is that some prominent Conservatives MPs are themselves dismayed at the news.
And there we have it. A party divided on the economy. Rumblings of discontent from Buckingham Palace. A prime minister forced to reverse a key economic policy within 24 hours of asserting that it would stay. A new government where the leader was not the first choice for prime minister of her own MPs. A cost of living crisis. A weakened currency. "The world’s most successful political party" is now torn between loyalty and ruthlessness. All this is playing out like a great TV drama.
Unfortunately for 68 million British people, we cannot switch it off, nor can we rewrite the terrible script.