Out by October: the six weeks of Truss
British jokesters this week circulated a meme of Liz Truss next to an iceberg lettuce, asking which will last longer. The answer, it turns out, was the lettuce. While that did not come as a total surprise — I myself predicted volatility the week she assumed the UK’s prime ministership — the swiftness was breathtaking nonetheless.
Resigning after six weeks in office, Truss thus becomes the briefest-serving prime minister ever, and the 38-day tenure of ex-finance minister Kwasi Kwarteng was second only to an even less fortunate “chancellor of the exchequer” who died. The two brought markets to a boil and the British pound to all-time lows with their misbegotten “mini-budget,” whose unfunded tax cuts for the rich and other hare-brained schemes have now been thoroughly reversed by Kwarteng’s successor Jeremy Hunt, operating as a sort of adult in the room and disapproving scold.
The Conservative Party is now scrambling to elect a new prime minister within the next week. Whoever is chosen will be the fifth Tory prime minister since Labour’s Gordon Brown was finally defenestrated in 2010, following David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Truss herself (unless Johnson himself reapplies for the job from which he resigned amid scandal just three months ago, as is rumored).
Incredibly, Cameron is the only one among them to have initially taken up residence at Number 10 Downing Street as a result of an actual vote by the British public — and even that only occurred with the help of the left-leaning Liberal Democrats, who for some reason agreed to provide him a majority in the otherwise “hung parliament.”
In honor of the august occasion, I offer a few thoughts on the situation.
ECONOMY WITH THE TRUTH
Like their friends the US Republicans, the Tories talk a blue streak about competence with the economy but have little to show for it except for the prosperous pleased. Factoring out the COVID years, as that was force majeure, the Tories’ average annual growth since 2010 was around 1.8%; similarly factoring out the Great Recession, Labour’s average since 1997 had been 2.87%. London felt like a boomtown in those years, when indeed I lived there. Unless it was my departure that brought everything tumbling down, the blame sits with the Tories.
There is a very simple reason for this: put a pound in the pocket of a pauper, and you will have spending which creates jobs, production and growth; put it in the pocket of a prince, and you will have another pound in his pocket.
Adding insult to injury, national debt under these supposed fiscal conservatives has skyrocketed from under 40% of GDP for most of the Labour years to around 80%. It is incompetence of a genuinely interesting sort.
THE BREXIT BLUNDER
The Tories are currently trying to sell the narrative that Labour will bring chaos. But other than fury at Tony Blair’s joining the Iraq war on false grounds, his time felt positively placid compared to the harsh austerity, Covid mismanagement, Scottish secession fears and Brexit fiasco of the Conservative period. And the absurd thing is that while the Tories caused Brexit, they didn’t even mean to: Cameron called the 2016 referendum to appease extremists in his party, only to discover that the idea — combined with a brilliant campaign brimming with lies — mustered a 52% majority.
With a fabulosity worthy of Lewis Carroll, the Leave campaign argued that exiting the European Union would be simple and remunerative, and that hundreds of millions would be saved and rerouted to the National Health Service. They forgot that this would require a customs border to bisect Ireland (since the “Republic of” is in the EU) and that Britain’s main business is business, mainly with the EU. In a rare comical turn by racists, such Britons forgot (or never knew) that the immigrants they most disdain came from the Commonwealth, the club of former colonies, and not the EU.
After an excruciating negotiation, Britain finally left the EU in 2020 and promptly lost at least 5% of its GDP; exports of services fell £100 billion below the pre-Brexit expectations, and farmers and workers are reeling. And the NHS? Despite the spending, the National Health Service is falling apart, and ambulance waits now reach the many hours. The Tories argue that this is because people are overusing the NHS, and American conservatives will say that socialized medicine can never work anyway. But it worked quite well until recently; Brits who would abolish the NHS are outnumbered by fans of the Philadelphia Eagles in Newcastle upon Tyne.
Truss was typical of the Tories who opposed Brexit, then embraced it in a fake display of respect for the people. She thought that scowling and cutting taxes would make her into a Margaret Thatcher. She and the Conservatives are learning that folly comes with a price — or at least they would, if introspection were their mode. Judging by the polls, the public is already there.
THE CORBYN FACTOR
Brexit might have been averted if not for Jeremy Corbyn, the far-left Labour leader who refused to genuinely back the Remain campaign on account of viewing the EU as a capitalist construct to be eschewed in favor of Hugo Chavez and Hassan Nasrallah. Tories still dine out on the grumpy anti-Semitism he personified and allowed to run riot in the party, which helped Boris Johnson win handily in 2019.
But it probably won’t work, because few people on earth cut so vastly different a figure from the bedraggled and dishevelled Corbyn than Sir Keir Starmer; the current Labour leader looks mostly like a Tory, and also somewhat like a well-coiffed refrigerator. Corbyn was the gift that kept on giving for the Tories. Under Starmer Labour is now polling more than 30 points ahead of them.
Britain’s first-past-the-post pure district electoral system should inflate Labour’s electoral majority to a parliamentary supermajority. They will say not a word about Brexit until Sir Keir in installed at number 10, because with this sort of lead one does not rock the boat. But after that, I’m willing to bet, the phrase “second referendum” will be given second life.
A GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND
It’s easy to mock the Conservatives at such a time (well, at any time), but it would be unsporting to deny that they are adorable for repeatedly tossing out the tossers just because of incompetence. In resigning in July, Johnson declared that “when the herd moves, it moves.” Now the herd has moved again. Truss resigned because she had lost credibility, and this was seen as a crisis of legitimacy, and that was seen as a thing that matters.
Sir Keir is now calling for a general election. One does not need to be held before 2024 — but don’t be surprised is the Conservatives go ahead and call an election anyway, almost guaranteeing their own demise. After 12 years, it’s time. But can anyone imagine the Republican Party (or basically any party) doing anything of the sort?
Much may have changed in Britain, but the country remains oddly committed to probity and propriety. Which is why, in my view, while Britannia may no longer rule the waves, and knickers are in a twist, it’s still a green and pleasant land.