November 24, 2022

At Balliol, Boris Johnson’s old Oxford college, there was a society, now dormant, called the Hysteron Proteron Club. Members were required to live an entire day backwards at least once a term, and discharged the duty conscientiously. The 12-hour ordeal would start with cigars and brandy over cards in dinner jackets, desserts giving way to soup courses, and end in the evening, a little dangerously one imagines, with a “pre-breakfast” swim in the River Cherwell.

Meanwhile, at Merton, where Liz Truss read PPE in the Nineties, undergraduates still perform “The Time Ceremony” every autumn when the clocks go back. Between 2am British Summer Time and 2am Greenwich Mean Time, students dressed in full sub fusc (black tie and gowns) walk backwards around the Fellows’ Quad in order “to maintain the space-time continuum”. According to her biographers Harry Cole and James Heale, Liz Truss delighted in Merton’s eccentric ceremony. I wonder whether her thoughts turned to it at any point during her own liminal 44-day premiership, before it too collapsed into an extensionless point in political space-time.

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The tricks being played on us by the accelerated pace of political upheaval are well in evidence in both Cole and Heale’s Out of the Blue: The Inside Story of the Unexpected Rise and Rapid Fall of Liz Truss, and Sebastian Payne’s The Fall of Boris Johnson, both of which enter a kind of warp-speed as their protagonists’ regimes spiral and crash. Great offices of state change hands like debased currency; in the last three years, we have practically doubled the stock of living ex-Chancellors. And remember when Grant Shapps was Home Secretary for six days? At times, it looked as if Andy Warhol’s prediction may become true of politics, if not elsewhere: in the future we shall all be Cabinet Ministers for 15 minutes.

What explains this unusual volatility in the political system? One widespread attitude expresses itself in the form of an exceptionalist view about the present: our politicians are peculiarly crap and ill-suited to govern. The watchword of this theory is “unprecedented”, and its characteristic mood is one of ahistorical sanctimony about contemporary political life. It is often difficult for these theories to rise above the flippant register of the sketch-writer’s caricature: Boris Johnson is a Machiavellian clown, psychologically incapable of telling the truth; Liz Truss is a Thatcherite human-GIF who loves pork markets. That is, the account struggles to actually explain the data in place of merely describing them.

Another more jaded mode of explanation is ahistorical in a different way. This outlook regards today’s problems as nothing special. Disaster and tumult are more or less eternally constitutive of political life. On the subject of Johnson and Truss’s downfalls there is little to add to Enoch Powell’s dictum that all political careers end in failure. While offering a useful correction to the former account, this view is also too complacent. It is, for one thing, often a little unclear what content there is supposed to be to the claim that all political careers end in failure beyond the banal truth that all political careers simply end.

In fact, there are several, somewhat novel, destabilising political phenomena described in the work of Cole, Heale, and Payne. Foremost among them is the manner in which the 24-hour online news cycle, with its insatiable appetite for a worsening situation, encourages a form of speculation on political confidence and capital. The combined desiderata of round-the-clock media scrutiny — a demand that officials be publicly accountable, and the lightning movement of news data — is an inherently unsteadying mixture. It is, after all, well-observed that social media can help to precipitate bandwagon-effects of popular resentment under repressive regimes; it would be curious if analogous effects were not also in play under settled liberal governments. Of course, the demand for accountability and a merciless attitude toward failure in public office are good things in their way. But almost no good thing arises without loss in some other dimension.

At pivotal moments of collapse in both books, events outpace the ability of political actors to effectively manage them. The lumbering anatomy of Whitehall is not built for acceleration. It is difficult to imagine how, in a previous technological era, a spectacle as engrossing, damaging and chaotic as the cascade of resignations from Boris Johnson’s government could have been similarly achieved. In the age of paper and post, it took a bit of time to resign. In one revealing anecdote of Payne’s, the spectral figure of Charles Moore sidles casually up to Treasury Minister Simon Hart who is sitting on a park bench on Twitter. “Oh Simon, what are you up to this evening?” Moore asks. Hart responds: “If you wait 15 seconds, I’m literally resigning.”

There are, thankfully, some reliable frictions left in the political process. Professional vanity, for instance, provides some residual robustness in the face of even the most vividly disintegrating political fortunes. Brandon Lewis, for instance, “breezed into” Johnson’s strategy room, at a moment of high calamity, and surveyed the reshuffle whiteboard. “Sensing the weakness of the team that was being assembled, Lewis argued he should get a grander job and was offered Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.” He left, apparently pretty pleased with himself — much in the spirit of a passenger who’s just successfully upgraded their cabin on the Titanic — before resigning a few hours later.

The relation between Johnson’s administration in its final months and the media placed him in a posture of increasingly hopeless damage-control. According to Payne: “from October 2021 onwards, [Johnson’s] administration was… entirely focused on firefighting.” At moments when instantaneous response was needed, aides found the Prime Minister “was always away”. Channels of communication stalled. The chief problem, as Payne tells it, was not so much that Johnson’s Number 10 team were mendacious and corrupt, but that they couldn’t stay ahead of the story — whether it was Paterson, Pincher or Partygate — for sufficiently long to counteract it. One unwelcome effect of the emergence of these intense, and no doubt irreversible, political pressures is to increase the appeal of a certain virtue of bloody-mindedness in public life. It might be, however counter-intuitively, that increasingly stringent demands for transparency and integrity in public life end up favouring not the squeaky-clean class of politician, but those who are able to cultivate a calculated indifference to the rules in play.

Needless to say, politicians who possess these qualities won’t just exercise them when they’re useful; they’ll do so too when their effects are destructive or straightforwardly unhinged. Mere hours before his resignation, Johnson remained “determined to carry on through sheer effort of will”. “All my life,” he is reported to have said, “people have been telling me ‘you can’t do that’. And I’ve always proved them wrong.” The same morning, Michael Gove made his fateful visit to Downing Street, by that stage a bunker of panicked activity, and urged Johnson to stand down. The Prime Minister responded by relating a story, apparently in admiration, of an uncle of his “who had ‘failed to take his meds one day’… [and] so barricaded himself into the town hall with a shotgun. The uncle was eventually bundled out by the police. ‘That is going to be me,’ the prime minister said.” Returning to his Ministry from the meeting, Gove informed his staff that the Prime Minister had unfortunately “gone mad”.

As with Johnson, the portrait developed of Truss by Cole and Heale, is one of a political agent almost pathologically insensitive to the influence of other minds. Aides noticed how “very thick-skinned” she was, with this “delightful Terminator-like quality”. But, on closer acquaintance, her steady hand could be unnerving, even to allies. At the height of the income tax U-turn, with the pound crashing, allies “were struck by her ‘worryingly zen-like’ demeanour”. As David Laws recalled of Truss at her first department, Education: “I like Liz but she doesn’t listen very much, and when people try to make points, she just talks straight over them in a slightly irritating and rather ‘deaf’ way.” This quality of political “deafness” can of course be useful, allowing one to wilfully resist the demands of external opposition and public scrutiny that might move a less headstrong individual to self-doubt or compromise.

But as Laws’s description implies, there is a constructive ambiguity in Truss’s case as to how far her obstinately “deaf” temperament is actually under her control, or about how far it is a part of a more general strategy of calculated madness. Rory Stewart recalls his years under Truss at Defra as “traumatic”. There, watching her civil servants “you could see the panic in their eyes and them thinking ‘does she really want to do this?’” And according to Dominic Cummings, Truss is “about as close to properly crackers as anybody I’ve met in Parliament”.

To her credit, Truss occasionally reveals a degree of pragmatic awareness of the manner in which her political strengths entwine with her personal incapacities. Addressing close allies in the early stages of her leadership bid, “she was blunt and to the point, telling one visitor: ‘I think I would be a very good Prime Minister, there are just two problems: I am weird and I don’t have any friends. How can you help me fix that?’” Presented with the consequences of the mini-Budget, and the possibility of simply throwing the old steamroller into gear and ploughing on, Truss at last recorded a final and uncharacteristic twinge of self-doubt: “the problem is the last time I ignored all these people they were right.”

Some years after his own short premiership (366 days), Alec Douglas Home is said to have encountered an elderly woman at a train station who admiringly told him that she’d always thought he would have made rather a good Prime Minister. He reportedly responded, with good grace, that he actually had been, though admittedly only “for a short time”. Liz Truss can for the moment only dream of comparative levels of anonymity. As her short administration collapsed around her, though, I wonder whether her temperamental deafness proved something of a solace — as Truss addressed the nation outside Downing Street she seemed almost to be smiling. (“Don’t worry, I’m relieved it’s over,” she is reported to have told those on the inside of the black door, “at least I’ve been Prime Minister.”)

But the lessons from Johnson’s demise and Truss’s implosion, so far as I can see, are not as commiserative. Today’s political environment makes remarkable demands on the modern politician — demands of exertion, openness, imagination, resilience to criticism, and speed of response. It is sometimes difficult to see how any decent politician could be equal to meeting them, though it is increasingly clear how a bad one could be wilful enough to resist them.