Liz Truss’s caravan moves on, but the dogs aren’t barking. Yes, there is the occasional yap from Rishi Sunak. And snarl from the media pack.
But there is radio silence from the Labour Party. The blob of interests that wants it elected or hates the Conservatives or can’t get over Brexit is quiet, too. No hostile biography of Truss has appeared, seeking to find a story that will bring her down.
This will end on September 6, the moment she becomes Conservative leader. Labour will go for her not only politically but personally.
The charge will be not only incompetence and heartlessness but corruption. Just wait until it gets into her refusal, trailed yesterday, to appoint an ethics adviser.
But Keir Starmer is the least of it. It will be open season on the new Prime Minister. The media may not be collectively anti-Conservative, but it is certainly anti-government – any government.
Unearthing a reason to demand a resignation, keeping the pressure up as Downing Street digs in, finding Tory backbenchers to express dissent, digging up the second story to finish the Minister off – all this is one of the great lobby games.
It’s up there with reshuffle forecasts and election speculation (of which there will be a simultaneous mass if Truss gets a poll bounce). Everything that the new Prime Minister has ever said or done will be remorselessly hunted down.
And the old media may turn out to be the least of her problems. The new media – that’s to say, social media – blew up the news cycle long ago and can spark a firestorm at a moment’s notice.
Downing Street is like a wood shack perched in an arid forest amidst climate change. A lit match carelessly dropped or chucked, arson or a camp fire that gets out of control risk burning the building down.
And I need scarcely remind readers that Truss will begin with a smaller proportion of Conservative MPs’ votes than any Tory leader since the present leadership election system was introduced.
But left-wing antagonism is only a third of the story, with the media seeking a kill being another third. The remaining part of the mix is the lobbyocracy.
That’s to say the mass of interest groups, bigger businesses, charities, quangos, campaigns, trade unions and state actors who want more money, patronage and support from government.
All of them are part and parcel of a modern democracy. Some of them seek more means for noble ends: I’m thinking as I write of disability charities that I dealt with as a shadow Minister some 15 years ago.
Others push causes popular on the Right but which demand more public money. The generals, admirals and air marshalls are lobbyists for the army, navy and air force, for example.
Others are simply rent-seekers. Others still lean left or are Tory-hostile: consider the way in which 38 Degrees gets up petitions to lobby MPs.
The latter have morphed over time from representatives of capital and labour into full-time constituency campaigners – the gift to British politics of the Liberal Democrats, social change, and consumer expectations among apolitical voters.
Backbench rebellion rates rose through the New Labour era and on into the Coalition years. The last two Conservative leaders have been ousted by Tory MPs. Theresa May and Boris Johnson lasted about three years each.
Each new administration arrives believing that Downing Street has got too big and does too much. If recent reports are right, Truss’s is set to follow suit.
However, the toxic combination above – an opportunist opposition, a scalp-hungry media, a pullulating lobbyocracy and voter-fearful Conservative MPs – will swiftly force Number Ten back to its frantic norm.
Truss will need a supportive, broadly-based and able Cabinet around her. I had a look at some of the options a few days ago, working outwards from her closest Parliamentary supporters, such as Therese Coffery, Kwasi Kwarteng and Simon Clarke.
But her key staff appointments will be just as important. Four matter in particular: Chief of Staff, Political Secretary, Head of Media, Head of Policy Unit.
Perhaps the best means of demonstrating the calibre of the staff required is to cite some people, secure in the knowledge that none of those I cite is available to serve, at least as far as I know.
That at least kills charges of nepotism, though I know only one of the four well, since she is an occasional contributor. Another I’ve met only once, as far as I can remember.
Let’s start with Chief of Staff. Reports that David Frost would take the job blew hot and then blew cold. He has Cabinet, diplomatic and Whitehall experience. And he is signed up to the Truss project.
My question mark about Frost, who is reported now to be seeking a senior Government post, is whether he would stick. After all, he has views of his own, and has resigned from a senior position once, because he disagreed with the thrust of policy.
Nonetheless, he would be a sound appointment. If he isn’t available, I would be casting a wistful eye, were I Truss, at Nikki de Costa, former Director of Legislative Affairs in Number Ten under Theresa May and Johnson.
De Costa left the former due to disagreements over strategy and returned under the latter to help deliver Brexit. Here is her ConservativeHome take on how Downing Street should and shouldn’t be structured.
Henry Hill described her as “possessed of aggressive instincts, a deep-rooted constitutional conservatism, and one of the best understandings of parliamentary arcana in Westminster”. That’s the sum of it.
For Head of Media, Paul Stephenson, once Vote Leave’s Director of Communications, would fit the bill. Rachel Wolf is an old Policy Unit hand and, with Munira Mirza, the author of the 2019 manifesto, which gave no hostages to fortune.
De Costa, Stephenson and Wolf have all been politically active in recent years, but for Political Secretary I can’t help thinking back to the Thatcher era, and to Stephen Sherbourne.
Sherbourne served her well – and returned to politics over a decade later, when the Conservatives were in opposition, to be Michael Howard’s Chief of Staff. The party had run short of professionalism and he helped to restore it.
I throw in these names not, as I say, because any of them are available, but to give an indication of how widely Truss might cast her net, and to convey an impression the sort of people required for the posts.
She will instead be tempted to put loyalty first, and promote her campaign team. In some cases, this would be a good idea. In most of them, understandable: the first quality a politician looks for in key personnel is loyalty.
But devotion is not enough, and were all of her key campaign staff to be simply translated up, there would be a collective lack of experience at the very top of government.
The Opposition, media, lobbyocracy and rebellious MPs will be manoeuvering against the backdrop of an economic crisis unknown in this country for the best part of half a century.
So if those Number Ten appointments aren’t right from the start, her government will be blown off course, and may never get back on it.