Only the most ardent Westminster watcher will recognise the name of Estelle Morris, who served a little over a year as Education Secretary in the early 2000s. But her 2002 resignation sent shocks through Westminster at the time: she publicly admitted she had quit, despite Tony Blair urging her to stay on, because she wasn’t very good at the job.
In her resignation letter, Morris said she felt she had been a better junior Education minister than Secretary of State: “I’m good at dealing with the issues and in communicating to the teaching profession. I am less good at strategic management of a huge department… I have not felt I have been as effective as I should be, or as effective as you need me to be.” In a later interview, she said that “I’m not having second best in a job as important as this.” When she left her department for the last time, some civil servants openly cried.
Watching Liz Truss’s straightforward resignation speech after a whirlwind month in Downing Street, one could not help but think of Morris’s resignation. The Truss premiership will be remembered as nothing short of catastrophic, as the economy was thrown into crisis and party discipline broke down entirely (not to mention the Queen’s death days after meeting her ex-Roundhead prime minister). She will undoubtedly save poor Neville Chamberlain from last place in the historical league table of modern British prime ministers.
But Truss plainly admitted that she had screwed up: “I recognise, though, given the situation, I cannot deliver the mandate on which I was elected by the Conservative party. I have therefore spoken to His Majesty the King to notify him that I am resigning as leader of the Conservative Party.” She did not wax lyrical about the honour of being prime minister — her whole speech lasted less than two minutes.
Politics is supremely hard, and even those who make it to the top may well end up as failures. But politicians also have to be resilient in the face of failure, which means that most of them find it hard to know when they are out of their depth. Almost no one refuses office because they don’t think they are up to it, knowing that the offer may well be the last they ever receive. The temptation is to hang on until something better comes up, until they get a lucky break and extricate themselves from whatever mess they are in. Public lack of self-confidence, in an age of saturation political media coverage, is fatal.
There was little prospect of Truss limping on until the next election: mass resignations or 1922 Committee rule changes would almost certainly have got her in the end, sooner or later. But she could have dragged it out and hid in the well-used Downing Street closet, even with a Chief Whip who is about as intimidating as a giant teddy bear. She might even have caught a lucky break — some giant Opposition scandal or a miraculously warm winter — and climbed within 10 points of Labour in a poll.
Truss’s fate, after decades in politics, is to be remembered as a punchline. We shouldn’t shed tears for her: she wanted the job and she got it. But at least she saw that she wasn’t up to the task and gave up. An incompetent politician is cause for dismay, but a politician who refuses to give up the office to which they are unsuited is the real threat.