Ambition without ability will damage you. And if your ambitions concern public office, then it will damage a lot more than your bruised ego. The damage could be to a large economy and a once-imperial nation. This is one of the many lessons the sad, sorry and damaging saga that is Liz Truss offers.
And the race is on. Again. Rishi Sunak is back in business. But I am not sure he can now truly draw any satisfaction in saying “I told you so”! Ex-PM Boris Johnson will undoubtedly return to the fray as the one who partied hard but will now reasonably claim that he could at least hold together the talentless but avaricious Tories, while still having a good laugh at it all. I am not sure the British public are in any mood for a joke, just at the moment.
The crumbling Tories
The British economy is burning. And the Conservative Party, the self-confessed party of power and money, is combusting fast. The United Kingdom is set to have its third prime minister in less than a year and the year still has two more months to go!
Extraordinary scenes, tweets, memes and whatnot have occupied British life for two weeks now. Chosen by party members, Liz Truss was not a favourite among Tory MPs who rated Sunak over her. Despite her evident and utter failure at the leadership hustings in addressing urgent questions of the economy, the looming energy crisis and ongoing tussles with the European Union (EU), Truss was polled as the leader. Why, you may ask. No, not race again, please.
Truss’ downfall began with Thatcher
A love for erstwhile PM Margaret Thatcher and her mantra of “low tax, high growth” that Truss parroted to deliver on, was both why she was installed as leader—even if for all of 45 days—and why her end, too, was the swiftest in British history. Thatcher, ghosts and all, is now or should be truly over.
Even as she channelled Thatcher’s high eighties style and demeanour, Truss’ end has shown that image politics will not rescue you in the real world of crisis and global challenges. In this mediatised age of politics where strategists, spin doctors and various communications specialists bang on about the centrality of the power of the ‘face’, privilege strict messaging and forever-on campaigning over the slow work of the party, ideas, competence and record, Liz Truss was very much their creature, as she played to their copybook. At her own and Britain’s peril. Tellingly, the 12 years of Tory rule thus far, experts have come in for repeated humiliation at the hands of populists.
Truss’s short-lived chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, with bombast, declared a mini-budget, which was swiftly spun as an ‘economy event’ and pushed Britain into economic catastrophe overnight. Kwarteng’s budget aimed to mimic and replay the long-gone Thatcher’s divisive ideas and policies. Taxes were cut for the rich while 60 billion pounds were going to be borrowed as sovereign debt to subsidise energy bills and other public goods for the nation. This was high-octane populism for the very rich while aiming to appeal to the poor and struggling.
No amount of replaying of Thatcherite principles, much less her image, was going to rescue Truss once this outrageous plan was rejected overwhelmingly by all major financial players including the Bank of England. The pound was battered and inflation soared overnight. Mortgages became prohibitive and pensions lost their value. It was Britain’s demonetisation moment. Ideological positioning and image-making at the cost of economic foundations, at least on this occasion, have rightfully extracted their political price.
In seeking to control the situation, Truss sacrificed her chancellor, who was clearly on a suicide mission—now aptly renamed ‘Kamikaze Kwarteng’. Only that she was immediately blindsided by another high-octane, shrill, right-wing principle of immigration. The Indian-origin Suella (dubbed Cruella) Braverman’s astoundingly prejudiced views on race have for now stalled the Free Trade Agreement with India. This was, however, not what triggered the end for Truss. Rather, Braverman’s resignation letter, which was not contrite but instead chided Truss for not sticking to her right-wing guns, killed Truss’ career. Most damagingly then Truss failed to own any of her decisions, with any degree of conviction let alone authority.
Also read: The great paradox of Indian democracy: citizen uprisings but no opposition
Hard right-wing politics vs reality
The Tories are now in a death spiral entirely of their making. A majority of over 80 seats was forged primarily by winning over Labour heartlands after projecting compassion in their policies for the disadvantaged, now looks utterly fragile. Truss went back to Tory basics in the pursuit of dangerous principles and in the name of ideological purity. Hard right-wing politics high on nationalism and populism could not stand the clear light of reality.
The last time, Thatcher’s children were booted out by former British PM Tony Blair, who had famously said that “The only difference between compassionate conservatism and conservatism is that under compassionate conservatism they are not going to help you, but they are really sorry about it.” Truss has already apologised. But it’s neither compassionate nor sincere. The damage is done. At least in these isles off Europe, populist politics high on xenophobia, ideological purity and nationalist hubris all banking on the power of the image finally seem to be in its death throes. Other populist democracies should stay tuned.
Shruti Kapila is Professor of Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)