Liz Truss’s Press Tour Is an Exercise in Reality Denial
Britain’s short-lived Tory prime minister Liz Truss has finally emerged from hiding to tell the story of her less than two months at 10 Downing Street, and she’s already rewriting history.
“Don’t worry, I’m relieved it’s over. . . . At least I’ve been prime minister.” Thus concludes the final chapter of Out of the Blue, hastily written by Sun political editor Harry Cole and the Spectator’s James Heale and initially intended to inaugurate the triumphant rise of newly christened Tory prime minister Liz Truss. Truss reportedly uttered these words to her Downing Street staff on October 20, 2022, moments before proceeding outside to announce her resignation. Fitting enough, Truss’s bromide-encrusted speech lasted exactly eighty-nine seconds — roughly two for each day of her chaotic and brief tenure at Number 10. So fleeting was her premiership, Cole and Heale write, that podium placement marks for the resignation speech still remained on the pavement from her first address to the country only six weeks earlier.
To those who lived through it, Truss’s forty-nine-day stint in office will probably be remembered (if remembered at all) as a tour de force of managerial incompetence, occasionally punctuated by moments of amusing political theater. On the rare occasions that public ineptitude reaches such heights, the old adage about train wrecks and car crashes definitely applies: sudden meltdowns in the halls of power are often hard to look away from, because they puncture structuring myths of elite competence and, in doing so, strip institutions of their artifice. But insofar as there’s a broader story here beyond that of an individual politician self-immolating in record time, it’s one of right-wing dogmatism ham-fistedly pushing beyond the limits of what markets will tolerate.
Save the lurid details of backroom conversations and frantic meetings as Tory apparatchiks realized their erstwhile Iron Lady was headed for political oblivion, there is no mystery at all surrounding the Truss premiership or what ended it with such speed. On September 23, shortly after the Queen’s death, Truss’s chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng tabled a mini-budget entitled “The Growth Plan 2022,” a would-be neo-Thatcherite speedrun of tax cuts rooted in discredited trickle-down orthodoxy under the fraudulent aegis of restoring Britain’s economic dynamism. Among its key planks were the scrapping of the UK’s top income tax rate, the elimination of a cap on bankers’ bonuses, and the cancellation of a planned rise in corporation tax from 19 to 25 percent. Also teased soon after were cuts in social and welfare spending pitched by cabinet minister Simon Clarke as a potential antidote to the British economy’s flagging productivity.
Succeeding a scandal-plagued Boris Johnson amid a cost-of-living crisis and a climate of worker militancy, Truss and her supporters evidently envisioned a reenactment of the 1980s, in which an austerity-minded Tory government battled unions and, with considerable success, represented its slash-and-burn economic program as a people’s crusade against the staid social democratic consensus of the 1970s. Clearly, Truss possessed none of Margaret Thatcher’s lethal strategic instincts or even basic political acumen, as became obvious in the steady drip of U-turns and humiliating climbdowns that soon followed.
In every sense imaginable, in fact, the Truss program represented a catastrophically poor reading of the political tea leaves. Most obvious, there was little visible public appetite for a massive round of tax cuts. And the basic conditions that once enabled and financed the Thatcherite project no longer exist. As the New Statesman’s George Eaton wrote back in 2018, “With little left to privatize, the Tories no longer have a source of easy revenue.”
Market actors of the kind who favor stability and predictability quickly recognized a disjuncture and responded accordingly. As Caitlín Doherty, Anton Jäger, and John-Baptiste Oduor, summarized last October:
Sensing that “Growth 2022” might have been a misnomer, the markets reacted viciously. The value of the pound plummeted to $1.035 just three days after the chancellor’s announcement; the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated that paying for the plans would require £62 billion in savings; and yields on ten-year government debt shot up by over a percentage point to 4.3, a signal that investors now felt Britain to be a risky bet. What eventually steadied the ship was not any political response but the technocratic intervention of Andrew Bailey, the head of the Bank of England, who committed to buying £10 billion in long-dated gilts per day until October 14.
The ensuing stream of swiftly aborted press conferences, about-faces in policy, and cabinet resignations — ultimately culminating in Truss’s own on October 20 — therefore owed themselves to the most mundane and small-c conservative forces imaginable.
In light of all this, there’s nothing particularly surprising to be gleaned from Truss’s first forays into the media since her humiliating resignation several months ago. Any former leader in the same position would likely offer a more heroic and self-interested version of events than what actually took place. But Truss’s own chosen narrative, set down over the past few days in a lengthy column for the Telegraph and a nearly hour-long interview with the Spectator, is so obviously removed from reality that it defies belief.
In Truss’s telling, a bold attempt to engineer “a fundamentally new economic approach” was thwarted by a “left-wing economic establishment” whose tendrils reach deep not only into Whitehall but also into the Tory Party itself. “We have ended up in a situation as a country,” Truss writes in her Telegraph column, “where fiscal policy is in a straitjacket. Moreover, there is a worrying economic consensus — both at a national and, increasingly, international level‚ that is preventing economic dynamism and growth.”
Strictly speaking, this statement is actually true — only it refers to the very project to which Truss herself belongs and has spent the past two and a half decades pursuing. As she would have it, however, the current consensus is defined by instinctive aversion to tax and spending cuts, hostility to supply-side economics, a faith in burdensome regulation, and an insufficient emphasis on the importance of “competition.”
It will come as news to most that any of these features are reflected in either the current global climate or Britain’s long-standing elite consensus. Both have adhered strongly to the principles Truss herself embraces; only a straitjacket of right-wing ideology could enable anyone to think otherwise. From the lacerating austerity policies and tax cuts pursued by George Osborne and David Cameron between 2010 and 2016 to the more recent response of major central banks to inflation, the notion that prevailing economic headwinds come from the Left does not hold water, even granting pandemic-inspired spikes in public spending. With only a handful of exceptions, the ethos embraced by both Tory and New Labour governments since the 1980s has been one of fiscal conservatism grounded in the philosophy that laxer regulation, upward redistribution, and a democratic state perpetually disciplined by the market will somehow yield growth and result in broadly shared prosperity.
In pursuing her chosen course, Truss therefore did not, as she appears determined to insist, stride boldly into a fierce gale that ultimately pushed her back, but instead moved too quickly and ineptly for even the howling tailwinds of neoliberalism to carry her forward. The UK, alongside most of the developed world, certainly does need a radical break from the prevailing fiscal and economic consensus of the past forty years. The supercharged version of that consensus, on which Liz Truss foolishly staked her premiership, was nothing of the kind.