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Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
In 2022, Liz Truss was Prime Minister from the September 6 to the October 25. That’s just 50 days – or 49, depending on how you count them.
But what if we don’t count her time in office at all? There are precedents. We already have two non-canonical Prime Ministers: William Pulteney (1746) and James Waldegrave (1757).
Then there’s the matter of Lady Jane Grey. Though she succeeded Edward VI, she was subsequently removed from the line of English monarchs. Most historians continue to exclude her. Much the same goes for Matilda, aka Empress Maude. Despite her disputed status as England’s first queen regnant, she’s barely remembered today.
Until this week, Truss was also on the road to obscurity. Within ten years, people would have been struggling to recall her name; within fifty, those who hadn’t lived through her premiership would be doubting its plausibility.
Eventually, she’d have become the Pope Joan of the 21st Century, a mythical figure that only cranks believe existed.
Except that, like Dido in Purcell’s Lament, Truss insists that we do remember her. Indeed, her 4,000 word essay in the Sunday Telegraph – followed by an interview and supportive commentary – is a daring attempt not just to rekindle history, but to rewrite it.
Of course, her revisionism doesn’t bear scrutiny. Truss’s core argument – that no one warned her about the looming pension fund crisis – has been met with well-deserved derision. Furthermore, this isn’t her only unconvincing excuse.
For instance, there’s also the bit where she explains why she and her first Chancellor rushed into the mini-budget: “because of the size of the expected energy package … it was going to be necessary for us a make a fiscal statement very soon.”
Ah, yes. When the markets are worried about fiscal headroom, immediately calming nerves with the biggest tax giveaway since 1972 is of the essence. There were those who thought that a few hints as to expenditure savings might have been timely, but the galaxy brains of Team Truss disagreed; such trifles could wait. Unaccountably, the money men were not reassured.
The Truss apologia contains another bizarre leap of logic in which she attacks Joe Biden for publicly voicing his disagreement with her economic policies. Supposedly, this was evidence of a “concerted effort by international actors” to challenge her Plan for Growth.
But while she quotes what the President said (“I wasn’t the only one who thought it was a mistake”) she neglects to mention when he said it. It was, in fact, mid-October — that is, after the Prime Minister herself had renounced the mini-budget.
Far from participating in global plot to bring down Trussonomics, Biden was merely stating the obvious. What else could he have said? Bring back Kwasi Kwarteng?
It would take an entire book to give Truss’s non-mea culpa the fisking it deserves, but that would be to miss the point. Though she won’t win over her critics, she is (by accident or design) establishing a betrayal narrative for those who want to believe in her and what she stands for.
There is a parallel here with the Trumpist myth of a stolen election in America. In trying to make a comeback, Donald Trump has a massive problem: he’s a self-declared winner who lost by seven million votes in 2020.
If his supporters are to be re-motivated, then they have to overcome the obvious disconnect between the man and his message. And in that respect the notion that Trump wuz robbed provides the requisite mental stepping stone.
A Truss comeback also faces an inconvenient truth: the fact that her USP, a plan to revive the economy, exploded on the launchpad. She too needs a way for potential supporters to absolve her of responsibility.
Therefore the blame is passed on to the economic establishment – especially the Bank of England, the Treasury, and the Office for Budget Responsibility.
In both cases, there is a kernel of truth to the revisionist fantasy. The Trumpists can point to America’s shambolic vote-counting procedures, the Trussites to a record of institutional failure on the British economy.
Of course, a great deal more is made of the verifiable facts than is justified. But if the resulting narratives feel right to those most inclined to believe in them, then it’s mission accomplished.
Therefore, it is not the details of the Trussite argument that most need challenging, but the enduring appeal of the narrative. If it isn’t confronted, then it will continue to plague the Conservative Party, just as Trumpism still haunts the Republican Party. Even if there’s no path back to power for the former Prime Minister, the risk is that zombie Trussonomics will stagger on.
How then should we fight the good fight against it?
Firstly, by not humiliating the party members who voted for Truss. They made the wrong choice in 2022, but for the right reasons.
No one can claim the country is on the right track – or that we’ve fully delivered on the promises of 2019. Furthermore, there’s the decades-long failure to tackle this country’s underlying problem, which is that our economic model is broken.
It is therefore no surprise that the status-quo candidate was beaten last year. In all likelihood, Penny Mordaunt, Kemi Badenoch and Tom Tugendhat would have beaten him too. Truss just happened to be the alternative they were given.
So while we must defeat her demonstrably wrong ideas, this can only be done with a better change agenda, not a no change agenda. But what change has Rishi Sunak had to offer this week? Nothing more than a new set of Whitehall acronyms; the old Department of Odds and Sods is to become the new Department for Bits and Bobs. It’s almost too exciting.
Admittedly, in news management terms, it worked. For the moment, the focus has shifted back from Truss to Downing Street. But make no mistake, fiddling with name plates is basic stuff. It does not amount to meaningful reform and won’t solve our fundamental problems.
The irony is that neither can Trussonomics. It, too, is an empty vessel. For instance, in blaming liability-driven investments (LDIs) for last year’s meltdown, the Trussite claim is that the financial regulators should have acted earlier.
Well, maybe they should. But how does this square with a deregulatory agenda? And does it even occur to the Trussites to ask why the City devotes itself to fragile speculation instead of long-term investment in productive enterprise?
Probably not, because they make no distinction between genuine entrepreneurship and rentier capitalism. Instead they want to reward big business with unconditional tax cuts whether or not it serves the national interest.
Despite that 4,000 word essay, there’s a lot less to Trussonomics than first meets the eye. Intellectually and politically, it’s a flimsy proposition that Team Rishi could easily defeat, if only they had something substantial to put in its stead. But until they do, they should expect Truss to keep filling the void.