Tory incompetence doesn't start or end with Truss

There are complicated reasons for the state of the Conservative Party, but one is quite simple

British Prime Minister Liz Truss at a news conference in London, on October 14. Reuters
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British university history tutors often recommend reading a book called The Strange Death of Liberal England. It’s about the 20th-century demise of the once-great British Liberal party. Nowadays we are witnessing a sequel: the strange death of conservative England. The Conservative party, which ruled Britain for more of my life than any other, is currently 12 years in government and resembles a circular firing squad or political death cult, splitting apart like an over-ripe banana. We could begin with the new Conservative leader, but only if we agree that the leader is not Liz Truss, the nominal prime minister.

After just one month, Ms Truss remains in office, not in power, as the figurehead for a zombie government. The real leader of the UK government is the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt. He is virtually unsackable, brought in to save Ms Truss from her own unbelievable errors. Mr Hunt is an estimable figure, calm, successful in business and may salvage the British economy, but no one can save Ms Truss from herself.

She is the most disastrous choice of prime minister in living memory and now inspires neither respect nor fear nor even pity. Rather than waste time considering her shortcomings, we need to understand that the problem is not one failed person, but the failed system that allowed someone manifestly unsuitable to rise to power in the first place.

Some 40 years ago, the elder statesman of the right wing of the British Conservative party, Enoch Powell, remarked that "all political careers end in failure". What is astonishing about Ms Truss is that her career as prime minister began in failure. Even sober editorial writers of The Economist compared her first few days in office to the shelf life of a supermarket lettuce.

Even if Truss remains in Downing Street she will be like a squatter in someone else’s home

But the real blame lies with the Conservative party itself. They created a system that allowed just 81,000 members to decide who should lead their party, and therefore the country, without the other 68 million British people having a say.

For some extraordinary reason, those 81,000 members loved the Truss message that cutting taxes, most notably on the rich, and cutting public spending would, in an injection of free-market fundamentalism, in some miraculous way create "growth, growth, growth".

They swallowed these political platitudes without once asking the most obvious question: do the numbers add up? They don’t. The Conservative party has, therefore, led the UK into crisis after crisis. A British child aged six will have lived under four Conservative prime ministers, five if Ms Truss is forced out soon, as some believe.

The Tories have already inflicted four chancellors on us in four successive months this year. There are plenty of complicated reasons for their incompetent behaviour, but here is one simple one: Brexit.

The decision to leave the EU came because former prime minister David Cameron worried about an upstart anti-European party, UKIP, taking millions of votes in the 2015 UK general election. He thought he could swallow up UKIP, so he offered the 2016 referendum on leaving the EU. Mr Cameron lost the referendum, lost his job as prime minister, and the infection of Brexit and UKIP-style policies rotted the best brains within the Conservative party.

The result was the jovial but incompetent and law-breaking premiership of Boris Johnson, the utterly inept premiership of Ms Truss, and a UK that is poorer and deeply divided. The union of Scotland, Wales and especially Northern Ireland has been undermined. Virtually every economic indicator – trade, economic growth, the falling pound – shows Britain has failed or is underperforming.

Ms Truss proved to be simply the most virulent form of the post-Brexit failure because she relied in government on groups of advisers from right-wing so-called "think tanks" – more like lobby groups – and adopted their free-market fundamentalist ideas, crashing the economy, crashing her career and crashing the Conservative party too.

Perhaps as they survey the wreckage, Conservatives may consider that their party, the party of Margaret Thatcher, once stood for free markets, fiscal prudence and "sound money". In the 2020s, their party now stands for competing egos, empty slogans and incompetence. Still, there is good news.

For the past few years, a sensible conversation about the damage done to the British economy by Brexit has been impossible. Now it is essential. In one of the many pro-Brexit British newspapers, a distinguished columnist finally came around to admitting that leaving the EU has been exactly the kind of disaster that some of us (me included) predicted years ago.

That, at least, is a start. Instead of worrying about the future of Ms Truss – she probably does not have one, even if she remains in Downing Street she will be like a squatter in someone else’s home – what we need to do is begin a grown-up conversation about how to end the self-harm that Brexit has caused. It will not be easy. It is, however, necessary.

Published: October 18, 2022, 2:20 PM