October 17, 2022

There’s a moment in politics when you have no moves left. No matter how clever you are, or how right your case is, the walls are closing in and they won’t stop until you are crushed. There is no experience like being in a Prime Minister’s office when that moment comes. It is crushing precisely because it feels as unfair as it is inevitable.

That moment is upon No 10 now — with a brutal twist. Normally it is possible to blame external circumstances, often a political rival ruthlessly splitting the party to seize the crown, reckless of the damage caused.

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This time it is entirely a situation of the Prime Minister’s making. It is her policies, the ones she set out in her leadership campaign, which have been fully implemented and more. It is her Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, who spooked the markets by sacking his Permanent Secretary, the most senior civil servant in the Treasury; preventing the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, a Tory creation, from publishing forecasts of the Government’s “mini-budget”; and wanting to abolish the top rate of income tax, on top of ending the cap on bankers’ bonuses. Three strikes and Kwarteng was out.

Is there a way through? Very possibly. Truss is facing the ultimate gang who couldn’t shoot straight. The parliamentary Conservative party is often called the most sophisticated electorate in the world — a phrase which is only true if you construe “sophisticated” according to the Elizabethan meaning of the word. These are the MPs who chose Theresa May, who lost a 20-point lead and a majority in an election against Jeremy Corbyn. They then plumped for Boris Johnson who governed as he has lived — as a Lord of Misrule. He became the only prime minister to have been found guilty of breaking the law — rules for which he had legislated, but in character had clearly failed to read.

This most “sophisticated” electorate has surpassed itself with a free market leader who has now been judged freely by those very markets. As a great Strathclyde Regional Council leader once said to me, speaking of his hundred strong Labour group of councillors: “Ah wouldnae let them walk my dog round the block. And I don’t have a dog.”

If, now, the appointment of Jeremy Hunt, a former Cabinet minister with no Treasury experience who fell out of the Tory leadership in the first round, is being hailed as a stroke of Machiavellian genius, perhaps it is possible to discern a faint and very narrow path to victory for the Prime Minister — or at least to survival, which feels like the same thing.

Time, as Sheryl Sandberg says, to lean in. Own the pivot; it is not, emphatically, a U-turn. Double down. Declare that you are governing in the national interest. Show it. Raise VAT at the same time as raising benefits in line with inflation. Throw in a new Deficit Repayment levy of 5% for earners over £100,000. Dare Labour to oppose such compassionate conservatism. Tighten belts by moving capital spending to the Right rather than cancelling any projects. Day by day, get to the end of the week, the end of the month, then Christmas. Then the energy package starts to kick in and reduce the rate of inflation.

Of course, politics doesn’t take place only in a government. Already, like “Snakes on a Plane”, letter writers are coiling into view. And plotters are briefing the lobby. There are so many schemes swirling around but they all amount to one proposition: replacing the Prime Minister without an election. The number of names being floated suggests one single problem — when you are looking for a unity candidate it is the unity which is necessary not the candidate. And Tory plotters face not only an immovable object — Prime Minister Truss — but also an irresistible force — the ambition of Suella Braverman. Such ideologically divided parties heal only slowly, and over a long period in opposition.

But what about the Opposition? Says no one. Ever. The bitter truth of the UK’s first-past-the-post system is that while the Government looks rudderless, the Tory party has a working majority of 69 and can do what it likes until it no longer has that majority. Which could be as far off as 2025, given the maximum permissible time this parliament could run. And everyone, including the Opposition, knows this. The action is with the Government and even if it is a car crash everyone driving past is slowing down and gazing in a mixture of awe and horror.

To get any cut through, Labour needs to change gear and get edgier. This is a tough ask. Not just because being showy is something that neither Keir Starmer nor Rachel Reeves, his Shadow Chancellor, are comfortable with. But also because as the alternative government, they too have to be careful not to spook the markets or the voters. Because while more than 50% in a dozen polls does suggest a settled will, it also means that Labour’s support is so broad it goes deeply into voters who are far from the unionised, statist, tax and spend heart of the party. This is a fragile coalition that should be nurtured — not confronted.

Time, then, for some creative campaigning. Labour needs to show, not tell; it must demonstrate it is a new broad coalition by co-opting public figures like Jamie Oliver. His passionate campaign for extending free school meals is making waves — appoint him to head a Food and Healthy Eating Commission. Oppositions can be fleet-footed, after all, they aren’t running anything. Starmer should capitalise on that to exploit slips by the Government where they can become symbols of how Labour occupies the middle ground.

If the Government spurns plans for an information campaign, the Labour should bring the TUC and Age UK together to run one. When the Government abandons smoking cessation programmes, Labour should bring its digital campaigners together with all the medical unions and volunteers from the creative industries to generate an innovative campaign. Don’t just look like the alternative government, act like it too.

High-minded campaigns should be matched by low politics too. Find every opportunity to use parliamentary votes to defeat the government — or use the threat of defeat to paralyse them. Too scared to lose votes, the Government will try not to legislate and create a Zombie parliament. But Labour should be chipping away at the Tory majority, looking for people to cross the floor. All its MPs should be on Defection Watch — and any Tory MPs who switch sides should be promised and given a safe seat. (Though with Labour on current polling, just being allowed to be the Labour candidate in your own seat would probably work for many.)

Everything has to be about image, change and momentum. Most of all for Keir Starmer, who must spend almost all of his time on the road — selling his policies and himself. It’s important that the whole country understands “green growth” means reindustrialisation and jobs, jobs, jobs. And they also need to see that Keir likes a beer, loves football and will actually listen to them.

Time is always the most precious commodity in politics — you need it to change perceptions, or to heal wounds. And time is moving very differently for Starmer and Truss right now. The Opposition leader needs events to speed up, the Prime Minister needs them to slow down.

The news is mixed for Liz Truss this morning. The actions of the Government are decisive and calming: more tax cuts from the mini-budget reversed and a statement from the new Chancellor in the House. This will calm the markets, but not the parliamentary Conservative Party. The backbenches are restless and getting more febrile, and WhatsApp makes spreading rumours to each other and to journalists so much easier and faster. This is why it is reported that Tory MPs believe the Prime Minister has to go — “it’s when not if” — but remain unclear what mechanism can be used.

Government is often described as a marathon not a sprint; for Liz Truss this week is a marathon of sprints to stay ahead of the mob.