A toxic brand and tragic comeback attempt

Published by The i paper (6th February, 2023)

The Conservative Party is desperately trying to stave off crushing defeat at the next election after 13 wasted years in government. It is surrounded by problems, stained by sleaze, seems devoid of purpose and looks lamentably out of touch with an electorate alarmed by decaying public services and soaring prices.

Such is the state of despair and desire for change across the country that if an election was held today, a lacklustre Labour opposition would sweep to power with twice as many votes as the Tories. According to one recent analysis, this would leave the party that has dominated politics for much of my lifetime with a pathetic 67 seats, rejected from Sedgefield and Stoke-on-Trent through to Somerset and Surrey.

The party’s problems, inflamed by their landmark policy of Brexit turning into such a predictable disaster, started building almost as soon as the spectacular results started flowing in during their triumphant election just over three years ago. As seen so often in history, a moment of great strength masked the rot eating away at the foundations. The dreadful reign of Boris Johnson speeded up their precipitous decline with his chaotic populism and deceitful abuse of power.

Yet there is no doubt – as proved by plunging polls – that the Tory struggles went into a seeming death spiral during the 49-day disaster of his successor’s premiership as the Conservatives shredded any lingering reputation for economic competence.

Liz Truss can boast of one memorable achievement: becoming the shortest serving prime minister in British history, shattering the record by failing to last even half the time of the previous holder George Canning two centuries earlier. The reason for her humiliation was simple: she slashed taxes without saying how they would be funded, sending the markets reeling and pound plunging. Her economic mistakes were compounded by the political ineptitude of a tax cut for the highest earners and biggest corporations amid a cost of living crisis.

She was not helped by that weird robotic inability to articulate her beliefs or policies, let alone connect on a human level with worried voters seeing mortgages surge and concerned about pensions.

There was, of course, profound irony in seeing someone claiming to be driven by libertarian ideology skewered so rapidly by the markets she professed to worship. Perhaps her boldness in sticking to her proclaimed beliefs was admirable – but the experiment failed.

Rational folk might have assumed she would slink away to reflect on her failings after such tumult, worrying about the naivety of her approach, the policies she pursued and puzzling over how to make her best ideas more palatable. But such are the vanities of our political leaders, inhabiting a shallow world in which a shamed health secretary abandons his constituents to pocket £320,000 on a reality television show, such assumptions are misplaced – especially in the fetid swamp of the post-Brexit Conservative Party.

So, little more than 100 days after departing Downing Street, an unrepentant Truss is back to reclaim her mantle as leader of the libertarian right. She claims to have spent many hours reflecting on her short stint as prime minister, yet like some kind of modern-day Narcissus seems still dazzled by the supposed beauty of her ideas.

Her 4,000-word essay in The Telegraph is a clunky appeal for redemption. She claims to have been frustrated by a left-wing “economic establishment” when in reality she destroyed the confidence of financial markets, MPs and voters in her government through her own impetuosity and unyielding ideology. Yet in her tortuously-deluded analysis – one in which tax cuts fund themselves, shrinking the state automatically sparks growth and money grows on trees – she was shackled by faint-hearts and foes surrounding her in the civil service, the media, even the White House.

Like all fanatics, be they Brexiters or Marxists, she insists that her ideas would work if they could only be properly implemented, ignoring history and reality. Some of her critique about an overblown state, sluggish growth and inertia in Whitehall is correct, as is her stance on the threat of China. Yet if she had delved a little deeper during her supposed period of introspection, she would have seen that her legacy of such disastrous failure in office renders her a terrible ambassador for the causes she claims to espouse.

The harsh truth is that Liz Truss, a more likeable character than many might presume from her public image, has become a toxic and tragically comic figure who lacks the self-awareness to see her true reflection. Yet her return to the political stage, like Johnson’s relentless campaign to grab back power despite his sordid behaviour in office, sends out a wider message to voters. It spotlights the selfish egos running amok at the peak of our political system, the shallow conceits of Westminster, the sad delusions of some people in positions of power even as their rhetoric smashes into reality.

Does Truss, a remorselessly ambitious politician who spent years grooming her image as heroine of the right and cosplaying Margaret Thatcher, really think people will fall for suggestions in her article that she had not been frantically preparing for the leadership election when Johnson was finally ousted?

Rishi Sunak is striving to restore a sense of stability to staunch the haemorrhaging of support, but already we can see both his predecessors and potential successors fighting over the shrivelled Tory party that seems likely at this point to emerge after the next election.

Ultimately, Truss’s pitch to restore her reputation – and any idea that it is being taken seriously – simply underlines the decay of the Tories as they flounder in the polls, drift further from the daily concerns of most voters and flirt with the sort of extremism that has infected their Republican soulmates in the United States. 

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