Liz Truss might have won this summer’s Conservative election politically, but Rishi Sunak has emerged as the clear winner ideologically.
When viewed in terms of the entire spectrum of Conservative Party ideology, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak aren’t that far apart. Both are neoliberals who believe in what Andrew Gamble, in reference to the politics of Margaret Thatcher, called a free economy and a strong state.
The differences between the two came down to how each thought these aims could be achieved.
For Sunak, the former investment banker, priority number one was balancing the books. Before the pandemic, Sunak was something of a nonentity who lacked his own base within the party. Boris Johnson, who promoted him to the position of chancellor in 2020, used this fact to his advantage.
Johnson’s particular brand of Conservative populism required a more flexible approach to government spending than that championed by the architects of austerity, David Cameron and George Osborne. But when his first chancellor, Sajid Javid, reportedly expressed doubts about the size of Johnson’s spending commitments, Johnson sought out a more pliant replacement.
The relatively unknown, Sunak provided the perfect puppet. While Sunak was ideologically much more of an Osbornite than a Johnsonite, Johnson knew he could be relied upon to follow his marching orders.
Yet Sunak’s star quickly grew. While politicians like Matt Hancock bungled the health response to the pandemic, Sunak was seen as having handled the economic response well. Schemes like Eat Out to Help Out were so popular that Newsnight, ever impartial, depicted the chancellor as Superman in one report.
During the leadership election, Sunak focused on building the case for a return to austerity. The spending he had been forced to undertake during the pandemic had, he argued, been necessary. But the time had now come to pay the piper.
He was, of course, defeated by Truss’s much more typically Thatcherite call for tax cuts and deregulation. While Thatcher did implement some spending cuts, she was not primarily an austerian.
Instead, Thatcher focused on “supply side reforms” designed to boost growth, and therefore reduce debt, over the long run. These included privatizations of public corporations, tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, and a mass sell-off of the country’s council housing alongside a rapid deregulation of the finance sector, which provided the foundations for successive financial crises.
Truss, lacking the imagination or understanding of economic history to realize that the Thatcherite revolution couldn’t be undertaken twice, rigidly repeated these policies in her campaign.
Knowing that the austerity agenda had been deeply unpopular, she avoided any mention of balancing the books and instead focused on how her reforms would deliver growth and prosperity through handouts to the rich. But, as should have been obvious from the start, trickle-down economics doesn’t work.
When the markets realized that Truss genuinely intended to attempt Thatcherism 2.0, they balked. The events that followed reflected nearly word for word the prediction made by Sunak to a disbelieving journalist at the Spectator:
There will be a run on sterling. The gilts market will be in free fall. And the [Financial Times Stock Exchange] will tumble as global investors take fright and sell off every form of British asset. It might take only a few days, or the government might stagger through until the end of September, but before long Liz Truss and her new chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, will have been forced to call in the [International Monetary Fund] to stabilize a collapsing economy.
Sunak had been utterly vindicated. Truss, meanwhile, has been forced to undertake a massive U-turn, fire her chancellor (now the shortest-serving chancellor in modern history), and replace him with Jeremy Hunt, who sits firmly in the Osborne/Cameron wing of the Conservative Party.
Truss may be in power, but Hunt will oversee the implementation of Sunak’s economic plan. In a word, this means more austerity.
Even before being fired, Kwasi Kwarteng was reportedly considering cuts to social security and public services to counteract the effects of his massive tax cuts. And while the tax cuts may now be less significant, the spending cuts will remain.
Hunt will argue, much like Sunak during the campaign, that the UK has endured a massive economic crisis during which the government had to increase spending. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch and the time has come to pay the bill. The bill will, of course, be paid for by working people — even though it was largely the wealthy who enjoyed the fruits of the pandemic-induced increase in public spending.
The argument for austerity proved immensely effective in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. After more than a decade of uninterrupted economic growth, it was easy to argue that the time had come to tighten the purse strings. The media had also spent years subjecting the population to reports on benefits “scroungers.”
Today, Hunt will find this argument slightly more difficult to make precisely because the first round of austerity proved so disastrous. The Cameron/Osborne austerity agenda eviscerated investment and growth while crippling public services and impoverishing millions of the poorest people in the country.
Since 2010, it has been hard to miss the reports of people dying in their homes after having their benefits cut. Most people will also have experienced firsthand the impact of the cuts on the National Health Service, social care, our schools, and the public realm in general.
In other words, Hunt has a steep climb ahead — because in both political and material terms, there isn’t much left to cut.