Why Liz Truss could be a successful prime minister

The first test is whether the new prime minister will be so inept that she will be replaced before the next election, which has to be held by January 2025

John Rentoul
Saturday 20 August 2022 16:44 BST
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My first assumption about Liz Truss was that she would crash and burn as a candidate for the Conservative leadership. My second assumption was that she would crash and burn as prime minister.

Matthew Parris, the lapsed-Tory columnist, tells me I should stick to my first and, indeed, second impressions. “Liz Truss is a planet-sized mass of overconfidence and ambition teetering upon a pinhead of a political brain,” he writes. “It must all come crashing down.”

I am not so sure. Parris and I were wrong about her as a candidate, and Parris was as wrong as he was right about Boris Johnson. He cites the outgoing prime minister as evidence for his thesis that Truss is useless. His first impression was that Johnson was a wrong ’un, and so it turned out.

Up to a point. There were a lot of people who thought Johnson would go down in flames in 2019. George Canning, normally useful only for pub quizzes, was often cited as the target for Johnson to beat as the shortest-serving prime minister (119 days). But Johnson forced an election, won it and got Brexit done. If he had been better at ordinary, boring politics, he could have carried on. As it is, he will overtake James Callaghan for length of prime ministerial service on Monday (three years and 29 days) and then it is thank you and goodnight.

If Parris is right to compare Truss to Johnson, she will be prime minister until late 2025, a period that must include a general election. That at least allows us to define the question “will Truss be a disaster?” more precisely.

The first test is whether she will be so inept that she will be replaced as prime minister before the next election, which has to be held by January 2025. The second is whether she will win that election if she is still in post – winning being defined as emerging as prime minister after it. If the Conservatives have a majority it will be she; any other outcome means it will probably be Keir Starmer, with a small range of uncertainty if the Democratic Unionist Party holds the balance of power in a hung parliament.

I am not convinced that she is going to fail either of those tests. Part of the reason I assumed she would fail is that I don’t agree with her. I found her simplistic view that tax cuts generate growth irritating, and wasn’t convinced she understood the scale of the problems that will hit her the moment she takes office.

But I have to try to offset my own bias, and in addition I have to recognise that she doesn’t always mean what she says. She has already U-turned on “handouts”, now that most of the votes have been cast: she is in favour of handouts to the poor and against those to the rich. And she probably knows how bad things are but knows you don’t win leadership elections by telling everyone they are doomed.

She can leave that to Michael Gove, another Times columnist, who paints a plausibly apocalyptic picture of the coming storm, drawing attention to the effect of rising energy prices on small businesses, which will be a big part of Kwasi Kwarteng’s emergency Budget and yet which has hardly been discussed.

Gove’s is an important article, not because it is an attempt to influence this leadership election, but because it sets out his view for the historical record that Sunak would have been the better choice. Presumably he didn’t declare for Sunak earlier because his own reputation as a Johnson “backstabber” would have been unhelpful.

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It is possible that Gove is positioning himself in case Truss fails, in which case he might think that Kemi Badenoch, whom he supported and who came fourth in this contest, will succeed her. But his main purpose, I think, is to advocate the compassionate, One Nation policies that he thinks are needed to match the reality from which party members are currently taking a holiday.

My view is that Truss will be forced to adopt those Sunakite, overwhelmingly statist policies anyway, because the alternative is mass penury. The first test of her skill will be how she presents the emergency measures as something she, as a conviction politician, believed in all along.

There is a school of thought among some Conservative (and, indeed, Labour) MPs that the economic crisis, including the sub-crises of the NHS and other public services, is so severe that it will wash away whoever is in government over the next two years. Well, maybe, but there are several component parts of that judgement. One is Truss’s response to the crisis. Even if people suffer, she might be given credit for trying to protect them and for taking the right decisions. Another, assuming that she survives the initial onslaught, is whether the voters think that Starmer and the Labour Party offer a safer alternative.

Truss would have to be a very bad prime minister indeed for the answer to that question to be obvious.

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