The Labour Party are enjoying the Tory Party leadership campaign. First, 52 Conservative MPs resigned and defenestrated Boris Johnson, the party’s most charismatic and electorally successful leader since Margaret Thatcher. Then, the eight candidates to become the new leader attacked and ran down the record of the Conservative government that they had supported and served in at the highest level.
Finally, Liz Truss seems set to become the next Prime Minister. Labour can’t believe their luck. But if Labour think Liz Truss will be a walkover, they should think again. When the dust clears, they will be facing a formidable opponent.
For a start, Labour already have a longstanding women problem. The Conservative Party have had two women leaders, both of whom have become Prime Minister. Labour has a great record of powerful female ministers from Jennie Lee to Barbara Castle, but the highest position held by women in the party has been Deputy Leader. And even though both female deputies — Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman — became acting party leaders neither of them became PM.
But while Labour needs to learn to take women seriously, they should take Liz Truss very seriously indeed. One of her overlooked strengths is that she has been on a political journey. Changing your mind is often thought of as a weakness in politicians, whereas in reality an unchanging commitment to ideology is one of their most eccentric habits. In normal life, we change our minds frequently and without fuss. As economist Paul Samuelson said, in a line so good it is often attributed to Keynes: “Well when events change, I change my mind. What do you do?” In itself, changing their mind humanises a politician — a particular asset in a time of popular revolt against out-of-touch elites.
But, more than that, making a political journey shows character. Three of the most significant politicians of the Blair era — John Reid, Alan Milburn, and David Blunkett — were great New Labour reformers who had started on the hard Left. Their politics had been tempered and strengthened by their journey. Liz Truss was brought up on the Left and attended anti-nuclear peace camps with her mother. She then became a Liberal Democrat activist, famously demanding an end to the monarchy to Paddy Ashdown’s discomfort. And when a Tory Cabinet minister she backed Remain not Leave, though she is now a passionate Brexiteer. Those surprised that Tory party members overwhelmingly see a former Remainer as the best defender of Brexit need to remember their New Testament: “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” The redemption narrative is one of our most powerful stories: she who once was blind, but now can see.
The fact Liz Truss has been on a political journey also makes her a powerful communicator. Some of the most persuasive arguments in politics are based on empathy rather than angry disagreement. Liz Truss knows why voters find progressive policies attractive, which can strengthen the persuasive power of her arguments for people to change their views. And her speaking style is clear and simple. The listener readily understands what she thinks and believes. Her opponents who too readily dismiss her as simplistic are missing the point. Politics is not a mathematical equation — a ten-point plan won’t beat a five-point plan 10-5. The messages and policies that win are those that connect with the heart as much as the head.
The Truss agenda is straightforward. The educational system is failing kids. Grammar schools would identify and help some bright working-class and minority children. The cost-of-living crisis is hitting wallets and purses. A tax cut would give money back to the public. Energy prices are spiking. Pausing the green levy would reduce prices. Now, there are good arguments against each of these policies, but they are superficially strong one-liners. It takes time to explain how grammar schools distort the education of the vast majority of pupils who don’t get into them, or to make the case that there is a danger that tax cuts lead to more inflation. The arguments against Liz Truss’s policies are strong but they need to be explained. And, as the old political saying goes, “when you’re explaining, you’re losing”.
Populist policies are popular because they give a sugar rush. The former Chancellor is formidably clever, he has been a lifelong Thatcherite and Brexiteer, and the interventions he drove at the Treasury — both furlough and business loans — saved jobs and firms. And you can see his frustration as the Tory party members ignore his commitments, his record and his achievements. But his floundering campaign should be a lesson for Labour if they want to confront Liz Truss. Rishi Sunak has repeatedly come across in the leadership debates like the cleverest boy in the class. His hand is up first. His answers are always by the book. His contempt for Liz Truss is withering. And it is all digging him a bigger and bigger hole, because while you can respect the smart kid, it’s really hard to warm to them.
The biggest frustration for Rishi Sunak must be that while his resignation caused the fall of Boris Johnson, the former Chancellor is being painted as the continuity candidate. And while Liz Truss says that she wishes the Prime Minister hadn’t resigned, and that therefore there wasn’t a leadership contest, she is taken as the change candidate. One of the best jokes in the US TV show Veep comes when Selina Myers uses the slogan “continuity with change” for her Presidential campaign. It works because it is bizarrely true — and it is true because that is what most voters want. They’re not revolutionaries, they’re realists.
The Truss offer is continuity with the spirit of Johnson and Brexit while meeting the demands of the voters who were, and are, angry with the status quo. That anger has been the fuel of politics since the Global Financial Crisis — it was there in Brexit, in the Scottish independence referendum, in the rise of Corbyn, and in Boris Johnson’s 2019 landslide. The fact that such competing and conflicting political forces can harness that same anger signals that there is an underlying volatility in British politics that can be channelled in different directions by strong and intelligent leadership.
It is in leadership that Labour must contest most convincingly. Liz Truss will likely be undone by events. The cost-of-living crisis is of such a scale that it is hard to see any of her policies — or any of Rishi Sunak’s — that will be more than a drop in the ocean. To win, Keir Starmer must learn from New Labour. Attack the new Prime Minister and her government, but don’t nit-pick. The critique must be based on a vision of hope and a positive project that positions Labour once more as the “political wing of the British people”. Otherwise, Keir Starmer risks being just one more man, in a long line of men, who have underestimated Liz Truss at their peril. After all, there are no accidental Prime Ministers, and like the rest, Truss has guile, will and talent.