Short Termism

James Butler

Comparisons were inevitable and humiliating, and came quickly. Liz Truss’s 44-day term, from winning the Conservative leadership contest until her resignation yesterday, was shorter than the lifespan of the average female mosquito (56 days) or a red blood cell (155). Henry VIII was married to Anne of Cleves for longer – 185 days – and even Andrew Neil stuck it out at GB News for 56. The most stinging comparison, though, is that Truss spent 53 days campaigning for the Conservative leadership, nine more than she spent holding it. She exhibited such manifest detachment from reality during the campaign that many journalists convinced themselves she couldn’t really mean what she said. Surely she was just flattering the manifold prejudices of the tiny group of reactionaries whose support she needed to win? But it turned out she did mean it. It’s amazing anyone thought it would work.

The details of the contest to replace her are still slightly liquid, but from Sir Graham Brady’s public statements so far it seems it will take only a week, involve some digital consultation of the Tory membership, and impose a very high qualifying threshold of 100 nominations from other MPs. The purpose of this may be to force a coronation, perhaps of Rishi Sunak, but the process presents obstacles: other competitors are already bidding, and Sunak is not widely loved by the membership. Behind those already vying for the job looms the shadow of Boris Johnson, whose friends are briefing that he thinks it may be in the ‘national interest’ – idiosyncratically defined – for him to stand.

It’s unsurprising that Johnson entertains hope of a return, like Churchill. It would be easier for him to do his Cincinnatus routine – a clanging reference which decorated his resignation speech – were he attending his duties rather than sunning himself in the Dominican Republic, despite parliament currently sitting. ‘Called from the beach while he should have been working’ doesn’t have quite the same noble glamour as ‘called from his plough’. He is still unpopular in the country, still under investigation by the privileges committee and could still face censure, suspension and perhaps a recall petition. Sitting MPs have threatened to defect or resign at the possibility. Johnson’s pretended victimhood – betrayed by his chancellor, investigated by joyless minnows – may yet appeal to the Tory faithful, whose victim complexes are underremarked but a persistent feature of British politics. Still, surely not? But we heard that phrase six weeks ago.

Truss won for the same reason that the contest to succeed her will be messy: the Conservatives are an extremely divided party, inheriting twelve years of their own mismanagement of the country, held together more by their eagerness to retain power than much idea about what to do with it, or willingness to tackle the problems their predecessors caused. Truss was never the favourite of Tory politicians – familiarity bred justified contempt – but she represented a peculiar brand of ultra-libertarian Thatcher cultism with a strong nostalgic constituency in the party, now irreparably tarnished (surely?) in the country at large.

The politics of the post-austerity state, and the reshaping of the Conservative Party through Brexit, leave it ideologically muddled. It still contains many disciples of austerity – Sunak and Hunt being the most prominent – but many of its 2019 voters hunger, sometimes literally, for a more generous state. Some of them are also fond of the ultra-reactionary social politics championed by the gratuitously cruel if otherwise undistinguished Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch. Yet many of the voters who brought Cameron to power over a decade ago are repelled by that politics. It is also increasingly associated with Brexit, which is the reason many Tories think of Penny Mordaunt – a committed Brexiter since the beginning – as a crypto-Remainer, given her record of occasionally saying nice things about gay people.

The spectacle of fringe libertarianism crashing and burning on contact with the real world would be funny if we didn’t have to live through the consequences. It isn’t clear what Conservatives think conservatism is any longer: what aspect of actually existing British society (rather than ersatz Victorian fantasy) they seek to conserve, or even what they think the roots of the country’s problems in fact are. The easy, nonsense answers – Remainer fifth columnists, decadent critical race theorists and debauched metropolitans – have their idiot adherents still, some of them sincere and dangerous rather than merely cynical. But they are fictions that won’t stand up to the very real problems of the winter now bearing down on us. The kind of serious reflection that’s needed is better done in opposition, which is one reason it’s vanishingly unlikely to rear its head in the coming week, even if there were anyone capable of it in the party’s ranks.

Winter is still coming, with all the problems – inflation, energy price and sourcing, geopolitical instability, industrial unrest, a collapsing health service – that were evident at the beginning of the Truss episode, now with an increased risk premium on government borrowing and a further declining currency. Britain has had de facto non-government for many months, and it isn’t obvious that Truss’s successor will be able to avoid fractious internal party struggles even as the country’s emergencies cry out for attention. One fantasy that persists among press and politicians alike is that the maelstrom of 21st-century politics is an aberration, and a return to the mean of stable late 20th-century government is just around the corner – perhaps with a better calibre of leader. It isn’t. For the foreseeable future, we face a series of overlapping crises of such magnitude that they require leaders of epoch-making imagination and resourcefulness to meet them.

Basic democratic propriety cries out for a general election, given how far the government has travelled from the manifesto on which it was elected, and how few people now get a say in choosing who rules us. Cases from propriety or basic moral dignity do not make the politics more yielding, however: any Tory prime minister who sought dissolution now would be sacrificing a large swathe of their parliamentary party and bringing their own leadership to a swift end. However desirable that would be for the country, they are unlikely to do it.

Though overshadowed by the Tory death spiral, Keir Starmer’s speech to the TUC yesterday did not offer overwhelming hope: he promised a repeal of the 2016 Trade Union Act – leaving Britain’s industrial legislation still among the most restrictive in Europe, as Blair used to boast – and indicated that the chaos inflicted on the economy will seriously fetter the next Labour government. ‘Things are going to be really tough … [We] have to be the party of sound money.’ It is likely, even if polls narrow, that Starmer will win the next election with the largest Labour majority since 1997. Constraints cannot be wished away. But it is hardly rising to our epochal problems to commit to squandering that majority in advance.


  • 21 October 2022 at 8:58pm
    Camus says:
    What did Harold Wilson say? A week in politics is a long time? Johnson at 4/1 this evening and he is the one most likely to hand over to the Labour Party in a couple of years. Sunak is not popular with a lot of the Tories, who see him as the Brutus who stabbed Johnson in the back so long ago.
    The Conservative Party certainly need a spell in opposition, which is why they will hang on until 1924, waiting for Johnson to pull the white rabbit out of the hat and wave his magic wand to get them a majority . What two more years of the Tories will do to the country is not hard to forecast. Privatize the NHS, maximize the profits from education, open more free trade havens, privatize Channel 4 of course and dole out more lordships to Russian refugees.

    • 26 October 2022 at 4:42pm
      Richard McCarthy says: @ Camus

      (The millennium bug abides.)

  • 22 October 2022 at 3:04pm
    Ewan Coffey says:
    July in Slovenia, August in Greece, October in the Dominican Republic - it's been a hard row to hoe, a tough furrow to plough. So now Mr More-cinned-against is up for the PMship again. But hang about, wasn't that his position still in July and August?

  • 22 October 2022 at 4:25pm
    enfieldian says:
    Delightful though it is to watch the Tory party writhing in agony, we shouldn’t get too carried away. As James implies, This is a British political crisis rather than a Tory party crisis. The 1945 consensus -full employment and council housing -carried us through the 50’s and 60’s, come Tory come Labour; the Thatcher/Blair consensus - home ownership and easy credit - kept us happy into the 21st century; what can they offer us now, especially those of us who are young, renting, working in the gig economy. It is not just our political system - FPTP, monarchy, Lords, etc. - which is not fit for purpose: it is our politics itself, including all our main political parties.

    • 22 October 2022 at 5:26pm
      XopherO says: @ enfieldian
      When the rot began may be a matter of dispute, but I would place it with Callaghan and his anti-union politics in 1976-79, having been first elected with union support (!), and ironically having in his Labour-machoman way trashed Barbara Castle's In Place of Strife - not perfect but an attempt to get workers involved in negotiations with admittedly generally incompetent company senior managers, and achieve some sort of justice. From then on Thatcher and the Labour right-wing continued (Michael Foot notwithstanding, but Kinnock well on board) the rot to this day such that the Labour Party is now institutionally corrupt and the Tories completely depraved, to put it mildly - and the in my mind unhappyThatcher/Blair consensus as you describe it helped it happen. So hardly unsurprising the political system is not fit for purpose.

    • 23 October 2022 at 11:23am
      MattG says: @ enfieldian
      Key change since 1945 is the notion that a be state needs to collect taxes to maintain its functions. Eg the Atlee government rolled out NI for everyone as a hypothecated tax for pension and health.
      Since Thatcher the consensus across all parties has changed. Either they sell the family silver or they sell future income streams (eg PFI).
      The second key change is that government and the civil service needs a minimum of expertise. Ministerial responsibility doesn't exist anymore.

  • 22 October 2022 at 7:26pm
    Sean Ryan says:
    Almost all of the UK’s problems would look more manageable with constitutional reform - PR and an effective second chamber. It is the elective dictatorship that had last landed us in the mess we’re in.

  • 22 October 2022 at 7:35pm
    Scott Pepper says:
    Now that Mario Draghi is no longer needed at home in Italy, perhaps he has time to step in and provide pragmatic leadership for a spell?

  • 23 October 2022 at 3:16pm
    Dr_Jim says:
    David Marquand (1996) proposes that politics can be analysed in terms of oscillations in two dimension – between individualism and collectivism in one dimension, and between what he terms moralism and hedonism in the other. He then goes on to develop a conceptual framework that organises the narrative of British post-war political history into four phases inscribed with contrasting sets of value orientations. The privations of the post-war Labour government that combined rationing with the establishment of the welfare state may be characterised as collective moralism. The development of consumerism in the late 1950s, with the proposition that the electorate had ‘never had it so good’ exemplifies collective hedonism. The Thatcher era of the early 1980s was infused with individualist moralism, but after the ‘Big Bang’ deregulation of the stock markets, this gave way to individualist hedonism of the Major and Blair years.
    The current problem for the Conservatives is to decide whether they represent hedonism (high spending in the Johnsonian style) or moralism (austerity after Orborne). Truss and Kwarteng presented mixed messages which confused the money markets, offering tax cuts (hedonism) and spending cuts (austere moralism).
    In the meantime, Starmer and Reeves are striving to present Labour as the party of ‘sound fiscal discipline’ – a moralist position. It may be argued that the next General Election will be a showdown between moralism and hedonism.

  • 23 October 2022 at 4:57pm
    L.Souchong says:
    just about sums it up ...

    • 25 October 2022 at 8:37pm
      steve kay says: @ L.Souchong
      Meanwhile, when will Sue Ellen decide that flights to Rwanda are not cost efficient, and decide to build, PFI funded, concentration camps?

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