Prepare for fine words followed by the shortest honeymoon in political history
Published by The i paper (5th September, 2022)
Let us start with some good news. Boris Johnson will cease soon to be our prime minister. Britain will be rid of a terrible leader who should never have been placed into power by his party due to obvious personal defects that include his immense selfishness, his contempt for societal rules, his sad lack of morality and that strange inability to stop lying that led to his deserved downfall.
He will go down in history as the man who demeaned Westminster still further while blowing the opportunity handed him by the electorate to reshape both his nation and politics. Typically, he tries to rewrite history already by pretending he is the victim of a murky coup while threatening to return after earning a few million in his personal levelling up mission.
Beyond the ejection of this shameless egotist from power, however, there is little to celebrate amid the gathering economic and global storm clouds. Johnson is likely to be succeeded by Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, after a leadership contest that underlines how the Tory Party has retreated into right-wing populism.
Its wannabe leaders have bickered over Margaret Thatcher’s inheritance thirty years after she left office while fuelling divisive culture wars to mask their lack of fresh ideas. They talk endlessly of slashing taxes but say almost nothing about salvaging public services in disarray. After 12 years in power this party looks an increasingly spent force, buoyed only by the opposition’s failure to offer any real alternative or policies.
We must assume the polls are right and that Truss will win. In a bid to stay positive a bit longer into this column, not least since she has been subjected to torrents of sexist analysis, I can see a few slivers of hope beyond that fact she is not Johnson.
The foreign secretary takes an admirably firm stance towards the Chinese and Russian dictatorships (although this is undermined by her hypocritical desire to pump cash into the arms of another despotic regime in Rwanda in return for a few refugees).
She is right to raise questions over the NHS getting endless extra cash when social care is left crippled by underfunding. There is the need for less (but smarter) regulation, along with a reduction in box-ticking bureaucracy. And Kwasi Kwarteng, her closest ally who is reportedly set to be made chancellor, wrote a fine book on the British empire that challenged the right’s usual arrogant revisionism.
Now we enter negative terrain. Truss talks about being trusted to deliver in office. Yet when you look at our struggling public services, remember she is the longest serving member of cabinet after eight years at the top. In her five posts, however, she has left no significant mark and delivered no serious reform.
As environment secretary she attacked large solar farms as ‘a blight on the landscape’ and pushed to cut subsidies, which looks even less smart today in an energy crisis. As justice secretary, she abandoned Michael Gove’s moves towards desperately-needed criminal justice reform.
Even as foreign secretary, she has put her foot in her mouth several times – such as when she encouraged Britons to fight in Ukraine – while those trade deals she claimed to have brokered in her previous job were largely cut-and-pasted from Brussels with a Union Flag sicker stuck on top.
Her survival under three very different leaders demonstrates political skill, just like the way that she outmanoeuvred all her rivals to stand today on the brink of power. She has shown understanding of the strength of social media to build her personal brand. She is, at heart, a mischief-maker who likes to stir things up.
Yet her record does not inspire much hope that she is the person to lead our troubled nation through testing times when families are suffering intense financial pain, key public services are crumbling and the enemies of democracy smell blood.
Nor does it suggest that she is really the second coming of Thatcher, for all her cosplaying in pussy bow blouses and tanks, after Johnson’s pathetic attempts to pose as the inheritor of Sir Winston Churchill’s mantle.
Thatcher was a pragmatist, of course, but also a figure with profoundly-held beliefs. Truss is more fickle in her convictions. There has been much focus on her Liberal Democrat student past when she backed abolition of the monarchy and legalisation of cannabis. But she was also a devout David Cameron loyalist who backed efforts to shift the Tories to the centre-ground and attract moderates.
Now she has evolved into a born-again Brexiteer and culture warrior – backed by some of the most toxic characters on the right who bitterly fought Cameron on issues such as diversity and same-sex marriage. ‘Her most noticeable characteristic is a capacity to shift, unblinkingly, from one fiercely held belief to another,’ wrote her former Oxford tutor Marc Stears in The Times (although he praised her ‘unnerving ability to surprise’.)
The best politicians, like the best editors, lead from the heart and show strength to welcome debate rather than surrounding themselves with sycophants.
Perhaps this week we will another metamorphosis. Maybe the real Liz Truss will emerge to stand on the steps of Downing Street and surprise her critics, revealing that beneath that ambition, drive and timidity in previous posts there is a leader bursting out with the ability to reshape the nation, restore our unity and revive our institutions.
Certainly Britain desperately needs a return to serious government after the infantile stunts and crass short-termism that have plagued us in recent years. Unfortunately, it is far more likely we will hear a few fine words and then see a cabinet reflecting tired factional politics, followed by the shortest prime ministerial honeymoon in history as a fourth successive Tory prime minister fails their nation.