If you believe the mainstream media, it has been yet another cosmically dire week for the Conservatives. But let’s stop going on about all the little things that went wrong, and concentrate instead on what went right. Nobody died. Liz Truss got through her speech without losing her voice, losing her mind or falling off the stage. The pound is back up to its level before Kwasi Kwarteng’s Fiscal Event. And maybe, just maybe, things are going to come right after all.
The winter energy crisis won’t be as bad as everybody fears. Inflation will start to come down. By the spring, that enormous Labour poll lead will be a fading memory. And as the next election approaches, ordinary people across the land will throw their caps in the air and cheer the name of Good Queen Liz…
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No. No, I can’t do it. Tempting as it is to tilt against the conventional wisdom, sometimes you just have to face facts. The conference was awful. The speech was awful. This has been the worst start to any premiership, I think, in recent history — perhaps even in all British history.
Perhaps some readers will think this very harsh. But one close Truss ally, speaking off-the-record to the Financial Times, didn’t seem to think so. “I just went back to my hotel room and cried,” he said. “It’s a total disaster.” That’s pretty much what the general public think, too. In focus groups this week, the words that came up again and again were “incompetent”, “useless”, “untrustworthy”, “dangerous” and “clueless”. The punters aren’t always right, of course. But this time they are right, aren’t they?
“Our policy is great,” Penny Mordaunt told a fringe conference audience a couple of days ago, “but our comms is shit.” But if your comms really is shit, then who cares about the policy? Who even knows about it? Communicating your policy is the very essence of politics. If you can’t do it, you’ll never win another election.
I watched Truss’s speech through my fingers, embarrassed not just by the sheer lack of content, but the comically wooden and childlike delivery. It speaks volumes that in their desperation to find something, anything, nice to say about it, sympathetic papers applauded her for staying calm after she was interrupted by hecklers. Only somebody who had never heard of Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair — all of whom were brilliant at dealing with interruptions — could have possibly thought this worth applauding.
For although academics and activists often prefer to talk about the abstractions of ideology or the nuts and bolts of policy, performance really, really matters in politics. To some extent, in fact, performance is politics. Even in a parliamentary system, you need a messenger who embodies the message, a leader who can charm and explain. Watch Thatcher talking to Robin Day in 1984, or Jim Callaghan being interviewed by Thames TV’s This Week in 1978, and it’s like entering a different world. Whatever their ideological differences, Thatcher and Callaghan are seasoned, accomplished performers, at the top of their respective games. They think about the questions. They talk in complete sentences, even complete paragraphs. They give long, considered, serious answers. They seem like impressive, well-informed, formidable people. Then watch Truss again, and try not to weep.
The Tories’ problems run deeper than Truss, of course, but since she’s such a colossal part of them, we can’t let her off the hook. I made a real effort this week to think of a Prime Minister who got off to a worse start, and the truth is, I can’t. Even Theresa May had a pretty long honeymoon until she blew it in the election catastrophe of 2017. Gordon Brown had a decent honeymoon, too, until he blew it by not calling an election. (Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.)
Perhaps the only vaguely relevant parallel is Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who succeeded Harold Macmillan at the end of 1963 after a very murky leadership fix by his Old Etonian Cabinet pals. As an unelected earl with, by his own admission, a poor television manner and a “face like a skull”, Douglas-Home was a ridiculous choice in the age of the Beatles and James Bond. But he wasn’t completely terrible. He had been a solid Foreign Secretary for three years, and to many people he represented a reassuringly tweedy kind of stability. In the Gallup polls, satisfaction with him never fell below 40%, which wasn’t bad for somebody at the end of a 13-year Tory regime. And Douglas-Home actually came pretty close to winning in 1964, with 304 seats to Labour’s 317. Does anybody seriously think Truss can win 304 seats? At the current rate, she’ll be lucky to make it into three figures.
Putting aside the structural, institutional and external issues, where does Truss stand in the pantheon of PMs? These are terribly early days, of course, but I think the answer’s pretty clear. Even if you admire what she represents — a kind of supercharged mock-Thatcherite free-market libertarianism — I think she’s comfortably the least impressive person to have become Prime Minister in my lifetime, since the advent of universal suffrage and perhaps even since the creation of the office under George I, or Queen Anne if you’re feeling eccentric.
If you think that’s a bit harsh, imagine you’re playing a prime ministerial game of Top Trumps. You draw your cards. Some are better than others. Walpole is great at parliamentary management, but gets poor marks for probity. Gladstone is streets ahead in the hotly contested “redeeming prostitutes” category, but scores zero for sense of humour. Churchill beats all comers for courage. Then there are the weaker cards. Somebody has to draw Lord Rosebery; somebody else gets Arthur Balfour. Theresa May, I’m sorry to say, is not a good card.
And then there’s our Liz. I know she’s supposed to be Tiggerishly optimistic, but so what? So is Peter André, but I wouldn’t invite him to become First Lord of the Treasury. In private, it’s said, she’s a tremendous laugh. So what? She’s supposed to be running the country, not performing in the circus — not that she’d be any good at that either, because she has such a weird stage presence.
She can’t give interviews, because she can’t think on her feet and can’t deal with difficult questions. She can’t give speeches, because she seems incapable of reading lucidly from an autocue. In fact, she can’t even write speeches: her tribute to the Queen outside Number 10 — where she reportedly cast aside her officials’ prepared text and wrote her own — was an embarrassment, utterly failing to match the moment in its blandness and banality.
What can she do? What’s the point of her? In some ways the point is obvious. She’s not Rishi Sunak. As Janan Ganesh wrote in an acutely observed piece earlier this summer, Truss won because she had the right “vibes” for the Tory membership, presenting herself as “regional” and “no-nonsense”, not a smooth, rich “metro-snob”. But I’d go further. To me she seems the Tory equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn, a palpably unfit choice for leader elevated simply because she pandered to the prejudices of her own activists. (See also: Iain Duncan Smith.) The parallel isn’t entirely exact, of course, because Corbyn’s risible and ridiculous views have always been remarkably consistent, whereas Truss used to be a pro-European, anti-monarchy Liberal Democrat. So she’s ambitious. Maybe that, then, is her superpower, but that’s not saying much.
Oddly enough for such a fundamentally uninteresting person, Truss embodies all kinds of interesting things. She’s the personification of the factiousness and decadence that almost always afflict governing parties after they’ve been in office too long. But she also represents a political culture in which parties are no longer mass-membership organisations, enabling small groups of activists to choose our national leaders. She’s the product of a world in which the lines between student politics and Westminster politics have become disastrously blurred, of a media landscape that trades in cheap soundbites, and of a working environment in which senior politicians don’t have the time to read or to think.
Still, it could have been different. Politics often turns on little things, and so it was in this case. Truss only scraped into the final round of the Tory leadership, and didn’t even win a third of her fellow MPs’ votes. I thought at the time that, putting my own ideological predilections aside, she was the single worst candidate in the contest, and nothing I’ve seen since has made me revise my opinion. In the MPs’ final ballot, only eight votes separated her from Penny Mordaunt, who would probably have won the whole thing if she’d reached the members’ round.
A few weeks ago, I watched the two of them at the King’s televised Accession Council. Mordaunt, as Lord President of the Council, was in charge, and was generally thought to have been very — well, prime ministerial. Truss, meanwhile, was lurking darkly in the background, like a weird combination of Dracula’s sister and Uriah Heep. I wondered then if some Tory MPs wished they had voted differently. Too late now, though. They’ve made their beds, and now they’ll have to lie in them.