Image: Liz Truss announcing her resignation. Via Prime Minister’s Office, Wikimedia Commons.
On October 23, Liz Truss announced her resignation as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, her tenure in that post becoming the shortest ever. Her replacement, Rishi Sunak, is the fifth Conservative PM in six years. Truss’s resignation became inevitable as the Conservative Party descended into a state of unruliness, back-stabbing and mutual recrimination, a veritable shambles, unprecedented for a party that could once credibly claim to be the most successful in the Western world. Less than three years had elapsed since the Tories under Boris Johnson swept the country with a crushing 80-seat majority, with Labour suffering its worst election defeat in terms of seats won since 1935.
Since the 2019 election, two major events had intervened: the COVID pandemic and the Ukraine war. Johnson probably benefited from the firm line he took on the war, but his rather poor handling of the pandemic surprisingly did not dent his political standing. Among many in all parties, there was a strong sense that a fifth consecutive Tory electoral triumph in 2024 was inevitable.
Then the tectonic plates shifted as Truss increased spending and cut taxes for the rich. The polls registered a massive Labour lead of more than 30 percentage points over the Tories.
What had happened?
The proximate cause: The minibudget
The proximate cause was the Truss government’s “fiscal event” or minibudget in September. To understand this we have to sketch the circumstances in which Truss became Prime Minister that month.
In July 2022, Boris Johnson, the architect of the Tories’ 2019 electoral triumph, was forced out of office, having lost the confidence of Conservative MPs. His flagrant violation of the rules (set by himself) to combat the COVID pandemic, multiple scandals, misdemeanours and poor decisions were too numerous even for the Tory caucus. The outcome of the battle to succeed him was heavily influenced by the rules governing Tory leadership selection. Any Tory MP with 20 nominations can enter the contest. Then successive votes among MPs reduce the number of candidates until two remain. The final choice is left to the 170,000 Conservative members.
The final two were Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer whose resignation precipitated Johnson’s downfall, and the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss. Sunak is suave, articulate, immensely rich and an accomplished TV performer, and he led the balloting among Tory MPs. Truss is dull, lacklustre, almost robotic in manner and a singularly unimpressive communicator. Nonetheless, she won by a significant margin. Before considering why, let us turn to the minibudget unveiled as the first major act of her premiership.
Truss packed her cabinet with loyalists, the most notable being her longtime friend and close political ally Kwasi Kwarteng, whom she appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. Both Truss and Kwarteng are libertarian free-marketeers wanting low taxes and a smaller public sector. The policies contained in the minibudget had long been incubated in right-wing think tanks, in both the United States and the U.K.
Truss and Kwarteng were convinced that revitalizing the stagnant British economy and accelerating economic growth required a major scaling back of taxation on the rich and big business, the shredding of regulations and cutbacks in welfare spending – all of which would unleash the country’s entrepreneurial energies. The top rate of income tax was abolished, planned increases in the very low level of corporate tax were reversed, and myriad other ways were found to relieve the weight of taxation on rich investors. The tax cuts were unfunded, but “trickle-down theory” anticipated that through higher economic growth they would pay for themselves. Significantly – and very unusually – neither the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) nor the Bank of England was consulted.
The combination of the tax cuts and the failure to elicit the views of the OBR and the Bank of England generated a catastrophic financial market crisis. The Bank of England was forced to intervene in an emergency bond-purchasing program to limit the increase in public debt interest and stop the pound’s fall in international currency markets. Confidence in the capacity of the government to manage the British economy collapsed.
To save her faltering premiership, Truss sacked her Chancellor, replacing him with Jeremy Hunt (the fourth chancellor in a year), an experienced cabinet minister from the more moderate wing of the party. He was no friend of the PM. In a dramatic policy U-turn, Hunt dumped virtually all the proposals in the Kwarteng minibudget. Truss was humiliated; cohesion, morale and discipline in Tory ranks disintegrated; and the party’s standing in the polls slumped to unheard-of levels. At its trough, in the YouGov poll of October 20–21, support for the Tories fell to 19 per cent, while Labour support surged to 56 per cent.
As PM, Liz Truss inherited public finances in straitened circumstances as the result of a stagnant economy (a consequence of austerity during David Cameron’s premiership in the early 2010s) and the huge cost of containing the social consequences of the COVID pandemic. She made U.K. public finances immeasurably worse. “Never,” the Observer newspaper declared, “has failure been so self-inflicted, so absolute and so richly deserved.”¹
Truss’s demise was inevitable and preparations were soon underway for yet another Tory leadership contest. In a bizarre twist in an extraordinary tale, the recently ejected Boris Johnson contemplated a comeback. This was averted by a hurried rule change which stated that a leadership contender required nomination by a minimum of 100 MPs, compared to the previous 20. Only Rishi Sunak, in his second stab at the leadership, surpassed this threshold. With one candidate only, the Tories avoided another potentially disastrous vote among party members. Sunak was quickly elected.
The Tories breathed a sigh of relief, but Sunak was left with Truss’s grim legacy. In in a few short weeks, she had trashed the Tories’ reputation as the party best able to manage the economy and uniquely capable of running the country. Sunak inherited a party that, as the political analyst Matt Goodwin observed, was “not only tanking in the polls but lacks a unifying message, ideology and dominant faction.”²
How then can we account for the disastrous selection of Liz Truss, a politician who was so plainly ill-suited to the role of prime minister? Here we need to dip into history.
The long shadow of Brexit
Over the years there have been many reasons for the Tories’ political ascendancy, but three are of particular salience: adroit party management, a reputation for economic competence and a public perception that they were more skilled in providing effective government than their main rival, Labour.³
Adept party management was, in the past, greatly facilitated by three key aspects of Conservative internal culture: the rarity of disagreements over matters of high principle, the low incidence of factional strife, and respect for – even deference toward – leaders.⁴
Margaret Thatcher was undoubtedly the most formidable Tory politician in the post–World War II years, yet the seeds of future party disarray were planted during her leadership. Over many years the party had prided itself on eschewing overt conflict over ideology, preferring to concentrate on its reputation for “sound administration” and practical problem-solving. Thatcher introduced a new brand of conviction politics, in which ideas and theories (Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, etc.) featured much more prominently than in the past. The result was to inject into the internal life of the Conservative Party a greater propensity to think and debate in ideological terms, sharpening differences rather than muting them as in the past.
Also during the Thatcher years, the U.K.’s relations with the European Union began to obsess the party, and were increasingly framed in terms of high principles. This lent itself to a degree of rigidity previously rare in the party. As the former Tory cabinet minister Rory Stewart commented, it “released a deep ideological fanaticism into the Tory party.”⁵ The political significance of this was rendered far more pressing by the rise of the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which threatened to outbid the Tories on their right. In due course, the split between those who favoured British membership in the EU (the “Remainers”) and those who did not (the “Leavers” or “Brexiteers”) became the most divisive and disruptive cleavage in Conservative politics.
This cleavage, in turn, was manifested in a new, more factionalized politics: older loose clusters of MPs sharing common interests and views were increasingly displaced by more tightly organized, disciplined and cohesive groups. The impact of factionalism was compounded by a greater assertiveness among Tory backbenchers and a loss of deference toward leaders. Not by chance, the most effective of the new factions was the “European Reform Group” of hardened Brexiteers, which played a role in the departure of successive PMs.⁶
To placate the Brexiteers and ward off the threat from UKIP, David Cameron (PM following defeat of Labour in 2010) made the disastrous decision to hold an in-out referendum on the EU. The wholly unexpected 2016 referendum result to quit the EU (52 per cent leave, 48 per cent remain) left Cameron with no option but to resign. He thus became Brexit’s first prime ministerial casualty. Theresa May, who succeeded Cameron, was left with the responsibility of negotiating the terms of the U.K.’s departure from the EU, a step that pro-Brexit leaders had assured voters in the referendum could easily be accomplished, It was not to be.
The Tories were not the only party to experience virulent ideological debates. Following its unexpectedly heavy electoral defeat in the 2015 election, Labour elected as its new leader a little-known figure from the party’s left-wing fringe, Jeremy Corbyn. Most Labour MPs were appalled and years of fratricidal conflict ensued, leading to dire poll ratings for the party. With a substantial poll lead in 2017, May could not resist the temptation to call fresh elections and thereby convert a small Tory majority into a decisive one. To widespread astonishment, Labour staged an impressive recovery from its 2015 results, though not quite enough to displace the Tories, who remained in office without an outright parliamentary majority. In the two years that followed, May struggled to persuade her ever more fractious, rebellious and rowdy backbenchers to agree to withdrawal terms acceptable to the EU. After repeated attempts, she failed and was forced from office – Brexit’s second prime ministerial casualty.
By this time, in total disarray over Brexit and confronting a formidable challenge from UKIP, the Tories were looking for a saviour – and one was at hand. Boris Johnson was already the enfant terrible of British politics. The former Mayor of London had dithered over the EU before deciding that his career would best be served by heading the Leave campaign, which he did with conspicuous panache. “Boris,” as he was universally known, was a celebrity politician, witty, personable and with a strong rapport with voters. Those who knew him – including most Tory MPs – considered him unreliable, dishonest, lazy and untrustworthy. But the times were desperate. Enough Tory MPs swallowed their doubts to ensure that Boris was one of the two candidates between whom the Tory rank-and-file were invited to choose. The result was never in doubt: he overwhelmed his opponent, Jeremy Hunt (now Chancellor of the Exchequer).
After a few months of highly controversial leadership in 2019, Johnson called fresh elections (the third in four years), claiming that he would “get Brexit done.” Facing a bitterly divided Labour opposition led by the very unpopular Jeremy Corbyn, the Tories won a crushing victory with a majority of 80 seats, their best performance in more than 30 years.⁷
In opting for Johnson as their standard-bearer, the Tories selected a leader who, according to Rory Stewart, a senior MP who ran for leadership in opposition to Johnson, was “manifestly unsuited to be Prime Minister”; indeed, he was “the most accomplished liar in public life.”⁸ In prophetic words, Johnson’s Eton house master many years before had written of the young Boris, “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.” Dogged by numerous scandals in his short premiership, Johnson was effectively brought down by the “partygate” affair, his brazen breaking of the restrictions on social contacts he himself had enacted to stem the spread of COVID. Without Brexit and the crises it had caused, the self-immolating Johnson would never have been chosen leader. Johnson’s forced resignation made him the third prime ministerial casualty of Brexit.
Having already elected one person “manifestly unsuited to be Prime Minister,” the Tory membership then proceeded to elect another. A Remainer in the 2016 EU referendum, Liz Truss rapidly metamorphosed into a fervent Leaver, and as Foreign Secretary cultivated an image as a tough, no-nonsense negotiator with the Europeans. In her contest with Rishi Sunak, she combined her intransigent stance on Europe with a promise of sweeping tax cuts, the two messages the very right-wing Tory membership most wanted to hear. Feeling vindicated by her election, Truss was emboldened to embark on her disastrous minibudget. In part, Truss owed her accession to the leadership to Brexit. She is the fourth Brexit-related prime ministerial casualty in six years.
Can the Tories recover?
The big question is whether the damage inflicted on the Tory party will prove fatal. The party has two years to retrieve its fortunes. Determined to fill the very large black hole in British finances bequeathed by Truss, the new government has already indicated that it intends to slash spending on key public services, resource-starved by a decade of Tory austerity. Cuts on this scale will almost certainly precipitate a large strike wave while driving the economy into recession. By the spring of 2023, voters will be facing a perfect storm: high inflation eroding living standards, high interest rates and therefore rocketing mortgages, and soaring fuel bills.
With the arrival of a more capable and astute Conservative Prime Minister, the odds can be expected to shorten. Much will depend on voter reaction to the economic storms ahead, as well as Sunak’s ability to tame the disputatious splits in the Tory party. Under the cautious leadership of Keir Starmer, Labour has recovered from the turbulence of the Corbyn era but has yet to establish clarity about what a Labour government would stand for. The party’s tactics under Starmer have, so far, emphasized negatives, avoided any hostages to fortune, and maintained tight party discipline in the hope that revulsion against the Tories will return it to power. Labour would be ill-advised to take too much for granted. The Tory survival instinct should never be underestimated. A party which, essentially, hopes to win by default is taking a risk.