An army loses a battle. Some of its troops have refused to fight, and have no confidence in their commander. The behaviour of those who did is a study.
Some make a last stand. Others flee wailing from the slaughter. Some fall to their knees and pray. Others surrender with arms palms outstretched. Generals turn their guns on each other. Most, stunned by noise and blackened by smoke, stagger open-mouthed through the carnage – bewildered, traumatised.
No sane person attending this week’s Conservative Conference would claim it is a battle that the Party leadership has won, and the picture I sketch above, for all its missing specifics, is accurate enough.
The details scarcely matter. Who doesn’t want benefits to rise with inflation, and who does. Who thinks the fiscal plan should be brought forward, and who doesn’t. Who believes the cut in the top rate of tax was wrong, and who thinks it was right. Who blames Chris Philip. Whatever Nadine Dorries is tweeting. Who vilifies Michael Gove.
Next week, the factionalised and demoralised Tory army will regroup at Westminster. What will happen then? I give you the optimisitic and pessimistic versions.
The first is that everything calms down. The markets hold steady. Divisions in Cabinet, while not actually closing, don’t actually widen. The polls get better. Votes on Liz Truss’s supply side plans go better than expected in both the Commons and the Lords. The Prime Minister has a good PMQs. Conservative MPs are restive, but can’t agree a replacement.
Recent figures confirm that the UK has been in recession, and the downturn that comes in due course is mild. Inflation fades, the cost of the energy baleout is far less than expected, war eases. Truss slowly rebuilds her authority.
She repairs relations with Conservative MPs. (She is already meeting with former senior Ministers dismissed in her reshuffle.) Recession is followed by upturn. Truss can claim that the growth she promised is happening. Wages start to rise again. Labour wilts as the media spotlight turns on them. The Prime Minister wins a general election in 2024.
The second scenario is the pessimistic one. There is more pension fund turmoil on October 14, when the Banks’s quantitative easing is withdrawn. Even before then, the markets heave, unconvinced that Truss can get either her supply side reforms or public spending consolidation through Parliament, or both. The polls refuse to budge. Strikes build, protests mount.
Tory MPs conclude that most voters, having believed that the Prime Minister was uncaring but competent, set on delivering her cut to the 45p tax cut, have now concluded that she is uncaring and incompetent, since she has withdrawn it.
Collective discipline breaks down completely. Truss cannot persuade the Parliamentary Party, elected as it was on a Johnsonian programme of boosterism, to vote for a spending cuts package. Resistance among the 2019 intake in Red Wall seats is particularly noisy. Conservative MPs cast around for a Michael Howard-type replacement, 2003-style.
It is possible, even likely, that the tectonic plates of politics, as John Prescott once put it, have shifted during the past fortnight. And that the fundamentals of British politics are lining up behind Keir Starmer.
The most suggestive evidence of power leaking away from Ministers manifested itself this week not within the conference itself but just outside it. Noise, megaphones, verbal abuse, physical intimidation: all these took place, in large or small measure, immediately outside where the event was taking place.
A West Midlands police commander said that the force shouldn’t intervene because “this isn’t Belarus”. Maybe he was right and maybe he wasn’t. But the sense of a Government stripped of authority was palpable.
Whether or not the pessimistic or optimistic take on the Prime Minister’s future is correct, gazing ahead at the Parliamentary future is rather like looking down at a snooker table. No-one can know what the impact of one ball crashing into another will have on the rest, where each will ricochet and how they will settle.
Boris Johnson’s fall was eventually triggered by the behaviour in the Carlton Club of a single MP, and Truss’s fate may turn on some development that also comes out of left field.
I wrote before the conference that she had no good option. On the one hand, sticking to the mini-Budget measures would guarantee defeat in the Commons, which would end her authority. On the other, abandoning them and apologising publicly…would also end her authority. And that sacking Kwasi Kwarteng wouldn’t make that choice go away.
She hasn’t quite apologised, but has conceded that the Government should have “laid the ground better”. And she hasn’t withdraw all the measures – only the proposed cut in the 45p top rate of income tax.
The question that follows is how much authority she has left. There is no point in asking what motivated her and Kwarteng to dispense with Tom Scholar, announce extra tax cuts without any fiscal consolidation, flout the Office for Budget Responsibility and then, having spooked the markets, respook them by claiming further tax cuts to come.
Nor is it worth engaging with those who asks why a £2 billion tax cut should have panicked the City boys when a £150 billion spending package had not.
The markets are made by rough prejudice, not dessicated calcuation – and seem to have viewed the top rate reduction as a straw breaking the camel’s back. The Prime Minister is getting none of the credit for reducing energy bills (from the levels they would have reached) and all the blame for higher mortgage rates, at least, if the polls are right.
If there was no good option before this week’s Conservative Conference opened, there is certainly none now. You may think that the voters have made their mind up about Truss. But what follows?
How could Conservative MPs collectively say: “sorry, folks! Bit of a problem here. But cheer up! We’ve given Truss the heave-ho. Sorry about this summer and all that. Bit of a cock-up, won’t happen again. And ever mind those pesky activists! We’ve agreed on one candidate. Fixed it this time! Got the perfect person for you. May we introduce…”
Introduce whom? Who is the Howard of our time – elected unopposed? Rishi Sunak? Too divisive. A return for Boris Johnson? Really? Theresa May? Would a fifth Tory leader in seven years be, literally, incredible?
The Conservative Party may be damned if it does and could be damned if it doesn’t. Neither that prospect nor Truss’s plight may move you to tears. All the same, consider the burden she has to bear, and look around further than SW1.
For all we know, Vladimir Putin will stepping up cyber aggression against western Europe tomorrow, wage asymmetric war, or exploding a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine. The last would take us into terrifying country. I would like to see the Government stabilise but not, God knows, were that the price to be paid for such an outcome.