How do you break your silence in the wake of serving the shortest term of any Prime Minister in British history – having sent mortgage rates soaring to 6.5 per cent, brought pension funds to within hours of collapse, and taken your party to a record low of 14 per cent in the polls? If, that is, you feel that you must say anything at all?
With such a record, you would surely want to concede, move on, and focus on the future – perhaps drawing on ideas you had no time to attempt. Let’s take a specific proposal. During her leadership campaign, Liz Truss floated giving parents greater flexibility to use Government money available on wraparound childcare and on a wider range of providers.
A growing number of Conservative MPs are interested in putting more purchasing power in the hands of parents. The former Prime Minister could have offered a list of pro-families, pro-growth policies in her Sunday Telegraph apologia.
For after all, growing the economy is the second of Rishi Sunak’s five priorities. There is a communality of interest here with potential to benefit the Conservatives and the country. Indeed, with his routes on the demand side closed down, Jeremy Hunt should strike out on the supply side, come his March Budget. In the meantime, he could do worse than keep his door open.
So for example, the Chancellor may want to find a slot in his diary for Simon Clarke, who served in Truss’s Cabinet but is untainted by its core failures.
Clarke is worth listening to on housing and childcare. Mention of the former takes us back to Truss’s growth programme, and is a reminder that her plans, though promising in parts, were flawed as a whole – strikingly so.
Why? Because central to them were more immigration and less housing. Truss may want to push back against the latter claim. But if you want to make planning all carrot and no stick – in other words, to scrap local authority housing targets – the inevitable consequence will be fewer homes built than otherwise.
Among those who agree may be Truss herself – at least in her 2019 incarnation, when she mulled standing for the leadership during the dying days of the May Government.
“We should allow villages to expand by four or five houses a year without having to go through the planning system, so people can afford to live locally,” she said, backing building on the Green Belt. At any rate, she ended up the wrong way round three years later. We need less migration and more housing, not less housing and more migration.
It’s tempting to believe that Truss’s fatal error was telling Tory activists what they wanted to hear, once she was in a contest she could win, rather than sticking to her free market principles, both in that election and as Prime Minister.
This view holds that it was her billion-pound energy support package that blew up the markets. Unfortunately, it isn’t consistent with what actually happened. The energy bill freeze was announced on Thursday September 8. (Her supporters should note that she backs it still.) Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget took place on Friday September 23rd.
The market riot began the following Monday – the Chancellor having promised further tax cuts over the weekend. On Tuesday, mortgage lenders pulled 350 fixed-rate deals.
Wednesday brought news that Truss had initially resisted plans to issue a statement to calm the markets. Thursday saw the pension funds’ near-collapse reported. Truss now claims that her team wasn’t told about the risk that liability-driven investments posed to the bond markets. Whether they were given a specific warning is disputed. That she was given a general one is not.
“Regular readers of this column will know back in February I warned of a sterling devaluation and the week before the mini-Budget I expressed concern about the febrile state of the markets – and how this should be top of the then Chancellor’s thinking.”
So wrote our columnist, Gerry Lyons, in the aftermath of Truss’s fall. He offered advice to her on the point during and after the leadership election. If you are counselled not to throw a match into a box of fireworks, it won’t do afterwards to complain that you weren’t told one was especially flammable.
One of the starkest warnings of all was given by Rishi Sunak. “Sunak warns of risk that markets lose faith in UK economy,” the Financial Times reported in August last year, during the leadership election campaign.
“We have more inflation-linked debt by a margin than any other G7 economy – basically more than double,” he told the paper. “My general view in life: you can’t take anything for granted. It would be “complacent and irresponsible not to be thinking about the risks to the public finances”.
Some will never, ever forgive Sunak for the unpardonable crime of telling the truth. For better or worse, ConservativeHome was more diplomatic than he. Truss risked the wrath of Kipling’s Gods of the Copybook Headings, I wrote in September.
These are guardians of folk wisdom – or something like it, as unchanging in character as the truths they tell. One of those sayings was a favourite of that Kipling enthusiast, Margaret Thatcher: live within your means (and don’t paint a target on your back when the markets are on the prowl). This takes us to lessons from Truss’s first draft of rewriting history.
Which is pretty much what her Telegraph piece seeks to do. Rather than concede, move on, and focus on the future, she denies, digs in and reimagines the past (for example, she glides over the fact that she came second in the final Parliamentary ballot). And all on the basis of a misapprehension highlighted in the very headline of her article.
“I assumed upon entering Downing Street my mandate would be respected,” she writes. So reads that headline, taken from her own words. But it rests on a fundamental error. She had no mandate.
You may reply that Party members had given her one. But the mandate upon which a Government acts is that upon which it has been elected. Truss was chained to Boris Johnson’s manifesto of 2019. A less reckless politician in the same position would have trod more prudently.
If you rush in where angels fear to tread, it’s no use later blaming your fall on a “left-wing economic establishment”. (Bond traders? Really? Mortage lenders?) “I fully admit that our communication could have been better,” she writes.
“As I said during the leadership campaign, I am not the slickest communicator.” But if you can’t convey what you’re trying to achieve, what’s the point of you as a politician? It’s hard to see how Truss has much of a future as one, and impossible if she can’t accept that her fall was less about communication than character.
Party members were wiser during the leadership election than they have been given credit for. MPs wanted Rishi Sunak; they wanted Kemi Badenoch. Our members’ panel has consistently supported spending cuts and tax cuts marching in step together.
The future may bring a Conservative leader who offers both within a framework of reducing the demand for government. The present offers either Sunak’s policy or Trussism revisited – that’s to say, Tory MPs floating big tax cuts without big spending cuts to match, as though last September had never happened. Are memories really so short?
“The burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire,” wrote Kipling. The Conservative Party can snatch it away, having learned its lesson. Or plunge in its hand and watch it burn.