In British politics, the summer months are known as the silly season. Parliament goes into recess in early July and does not return until the first week of September. With official politics on pause, the media seizes on the ephemeral and ridiculous to fill the column inches.
This year, while Westminster went on holiday politics did not. The one story that has absolutely dominated the summer has been the cost-of-living crisis. Low inflation, an objective zealously pursued by all governments since 1979, has slipped from policymakers’ control. In August it reached 10.1 percent, with some forecasters predicting it could go as high as 22 percent by early next year.
A major contributor to the crisis has been the Europe-wide energy price spiral — sparked by the war in Ukraine and exacerbated by government and private energy providers failing to invest in generation and storage while shuttering old power plants and bulldozing gas storage facilities. As a result, energy bills have been rapidly rising since this spring. Bills for an average two-three bedroom household have shot up: from £1,200/year last year to £1,971 now to a projected £3,549 in October, with some suggestions it could reach £6,000 in January. After a decade of flatlining wages, many millions of people simply won’t be able to heat their homes this winter — unless the government steps in.
It’s into this scene that Liz Truss now steps as the country’s new prime minister, after winning the Tory Party’s leadership contest — the third in six years — with a slim, but not absolute, majority on Monday. “As strong as this storm may be,” she declared in her inaugural speech on Tuesday, “I know the British people are stronger.” Her premiership promises the usual tax cuts and deregulation in an effort to make Britain a place for “business-led growth and investment.” What this means for the “British people” themselves, however, remains to be seen.
The Rise and Rise of Liz Truss
On the overly long campaign trail, Truss recounted how she did not come from a typical Tory background. She was born to left-wing parents and in her teenage years was a leading member of the centrist Liberal Democrats’ youth section, famously calling for the abolition of the monarchy at their 1994 party conference.
Shortly afterward she joined the Tories, serving as a lay officer, twice as an unsuccessful parliamentary candidate, and as a local authority councilor in Greenwich before finally entering Parliament in 2010. Since then, her politics are best described as being driven by career opportunities.
In 2012 she was among five Tory MPs of the now notorious book Britannia Unchained. This collection by “rising stars” in the Tory parliamentary firmament was a hard-right free-market tract, in which British workers were memorably described as among the worst idlers in the world. The other authors included Kwasi Kwarteng, now appointed as Truss’s chancellor, the outgoing deputy prime minister Dominic Raab, and Priti Patel, Boris Johnson’s home secretary. Britannia Unchained might have been extreme, but it merely condensed what the David Cameron government was in fact already doing. Most important, the book boosted the profiles of its contributors; promotion for Truss was only a matter of time.
Her chance came when she was appointed a junior minister with responsibility for childcare in 2012. Demonstrating her neoliberal credentials, Truss changed the rules to allow more toddlers and babies to be supervised in a nursery setting by a single member of staff — conveniently allowing employers to cut their workforces and maximize profits. In 2014 after getting moved to the environmental brief, she cut subsidies for solar generation on what she regarded as land fit for farming, thereby contributing to the UK’s energy generation crisis.
Most stark, after the Tories won the 2015 general election, she came out strongly in favor of Remain in the European Union membership referendum, arguing that staying in the EU was in Britain’s economic self-interest, citing the EU’s protection of the environment, among other things.
When Leave ultimately won the referendum, she transformed herself into a born-again Brexiteer, committing herself to delivering Brexit’s “opportunities.” When Theresa May took over from David Cameron, she remained loyal throughout May’s troubled premiership and quickly jumped on the Johnson bandwagon when he declared his leadership campaign in 2019. Rewarded with the position of international trade minister and later foreign secretary, Truss used the positions to pump up her brand. She signed post-Brexit trade deals, sometimes on worse trading terms than what was available through the EU, all the way declaring that she was maximizing the country’s new economic freedoms.
When Johnson’s government finally collapsed two months ago, Truss was careful to ensure she was nowhere near the scene. When it came to her own bid for power, she could subsequently trade off her position as the continuity candidate.
Doing this has meant courting the right of the party. She has spent the last two months tickling its belly. On Brexit she has promised a showdown with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Presently, under the deal formulated and signed by Johnson, UK goods going into the North are subject to checks as the province is governed by EU customs arrangements.
Truss has talked tough on this, almost as if it was imposed on the UK and not designed by her predecessor. And it plays well with a membership who thinks being British magically entitles the country to favorable trading relationships and the right to opt out of international rules.
She has also pledged to carry on the war on the woke, making use of her hustings to make provocative comments about womanhood and trampling on the rights of trans people. On law and order, she has pledged 20,000 more police officers; previous Tory governments had cut that many officers between 2010 and 2019. She has also pledged to introduce police force league tables to generate competition between them. Beyond British shores, she wants to expand on the existing scheme whereby refugees seeking asylum in Britain will be deported to Rwanda in Central Africa for processing and, it seems, resettlement.
But her centerpiece policies are, on the face of it, classically Thatcherite: tax cuts. A Truss-led government can be expected to reduce income tax for high earners, reverse the rise in National Insurance (introduced by former chancellor Rishi Sunak to pay for adult social care), and cancel a scheduled rise in corporation taxes.
Drawing from the Thatcherite playbook, Truss maintains that tax cuts encourage businesses to invest, thereby helping the UK to avoid recession. In reality, her policies will only benefit the better off, shielding big business from paying more toward the inevitable energy bailout, and helping continue the culture of profiteering with no investment that has characterized Tory economics since 2010.
Unfortunately for Truss, energy bills are now the focus of the news media and as a result, more people than usual are paying attention to what the Tory candidates have said on the issue. Unsurprisingly, Truss has been found wanting.
Asked repeatedly about her plans on energy, she has mostly stuck to the line of tax cuts plus the preannounced small package of measures that support pensioners and the poorest, as well as a £400 cash payment to every household. Elsewhere, she has repeatedly claimed to be “against handouts.” With such a gaping hole where a policy should be, even Keir Starmer’s Labour Party could not pass up the chance to steal a march.
In mid-August Starmer committed Labour to freezing bills at the £1,971 level, paid for by expanding a levy on oil and gas profits. Truss’s failure to say what she will do probably explains why she enters office with appalling polling numbers. According to pollster Opinium, between the beginning and the end of August Truss has dropped from a +39 percent to a +8 percent rating for “competent” among 2019 Tory voters, +33 percent to -2 percent on “trustworthy,” +29 percent to -4 percent on “is a strong leader,” and +28 percent to -11 percent on “looks like a PM in waiting.” The more Johnson voters have seen of her, the less they like.
Storm Clouds Ahead
When Truss enters office on Monday, she knows she has to come up with a plan and fast. She promised Laura Kuenssberg on her new BBC politics show that she would outline a plan within the first week, but whatever she comes up with poses problems for her standing in the party.
First, Truss was ultimately supported by more Tory MPs than Sunak, but she commands a plurality, not a majority, of support from parliamentarians. Her cabinet, newly assembled, has excluded people from Sunak’s camp, including powerful establishment figures, like the former levelling up secretary and Rupert Murdoch lackey Michael Gove and other former senior ministers.
If she does not throw this section of the party the bone of offices and/or policy concessions, they could cause her trouble. Second, this has been a particularly bad-tempered leadership contest. Sunak’s attacks on Truss have had a scorched-earth quality about them, calling her tax and borrowing plans inflationary, unconservative, and immoral. Truss can expect to have these lines quoted back at her at the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions by opposition MPs.
This fundamental disagreement about the way forward can be expected to surface, if not over her crisis package, then later on other issues. Likewise, early on Truss’s courting of the right of the parliamentary party means they will expect her to go along with their schemes, particularly on distancing the UK further from the EU and egging on a showdown over Northern Ireland. Under May and Johnson, elements of the Right have proved extremely fickle and are likely to cause difficulties if she departs from the script they’ve put in front of her.
Of course, the other big difficulty for Truss is . . . Truss. On the campaign trail, she made several unforced and discomfiting errors. At the last hustings event on Wednesday, for example, responding to an audience member, she said she would “look into” making speed limits advisory. In 2021 there were 128,000 casualties from road-traffic accidents, resulting in over 1,500 deaths. More serious, in early August a proposal was leaked from her campaign team that she planned on scrapping national pay agreements in the public sector so she could reduce the pay of civil services and state employees outside of London and the South East of England. Within hours of the story breaking, she publicly U-turned, but it demonstrated a distinct lack of political sense — especially in a cost-of-living crisis. Even Johnson was nominally committed to “leveling up” the deprived UK regions.
Most salient, perhaps, Truss is reportedly considering an all-out assault on workers’ rights. These involve further curtailing the right to strike, scrapping the forty-eight-hour limit on the working week, and reducing basic holiday entitlements. Considering the massive crisis already facing her, simmering Brexit difficulties, and party-management issues, picking a fight with an increasingly combative labor movement against the backdrop of the biggest squeeze in living standards for decades is not just foolhardy, it’s stupid.
This is Britain’s new prime minister: an opportunist who changes her tune when career dictates, a politician who treats the main issue of the day as an inconvenience that will be addressed in due course, a figure whose personal ratings are in free fall before she’s even taken office, and a party leader prone to gaffes, unforced errors, and reckless decision-making. Looking at Truss’s records, there’s little to suggest that she will act decisively against energy prices.
Just like Johnson’s government, in all likelihood the next couple of years will be excruciating to watch and painful to experience — and all without her predecessor’s bumbling charisma to help her though.