“There’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet,” writes Samuel Beckett in Waiting for Godot. Like all good insight into the human psyche, it holds no matter the circumstance.
This time the “man” is Liz Truss embarking on her comeback tour. And the “boots” are the right-wing economic orthodoxy, the left-wing economic orthodoxy, the Conservative Party, the “establishment” and Queen Elizabeth’s poorly timed death. For a mea culpa it was remarkably light on the mea aspect.
Nearly 100 days after Truss’s resignation as the UK’s shortest-serving prime minister (at least that is one thing to be grateful for) she wrote an essay for the Telegraph. In it she outlines the mistakes of her premiership before swiftly chalking up those mistakes to everyone but herself. Boots, feet, you know how it goes.
“I am not claiming to be blameless in what happened, but fundamentally I was not given a realistic chance to enact my policies by a very powerful economic establishment, coupled with a lack of political support,” she says. It was thanks to this, the apparent leftward shift of the British media and the slow pace of civil servants that her low-tax high-growth economic agenda failed.
The funny thing about Truss is that upon entering office her prognosis was pretty much correct. Britain’s economy was stagnant and growth needed to be encouraged, lest it continue down the path of managed decline. The sad thing about Truss is that pretty much everything she did after that was not just unhelpful but essential lunacy. A good diagnostician is no use if they are also a poor practitioner.
Her mistakes sent shock waves through the bond markets and tanked sterling; she sacked her chancellor even though she later conceded on Spectator TV that she agreed with everything he believed. The Bank of England had to intervene, doing no favours for Britain’s faltering status on the world stage. But what does it matter if it was someone else’s fault all along?
On Monday, William Hague – former foreign secretary and leader of the Conservative Party – pointed out an endemic inability in politicians to take accountability for their mistakes. Jeremy Corbyn never acknowledged the extent of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party; Donald Trump didn’t concede any ground on the accusations that he incited the January 6th Capitol Riot.
We can add to Hague’s list. Remainers undid Brexit; actually, wasn’t it the European Union? No wait. It was Ireland. Or maybe it was the soft-Brexiteers? In any case, it certainly wasn’t anything to do with the hastiness of Boris Johnson’s exit. Nor had it anything to do with a nationwide failure to listen to very fair warning signs concerning the Border, or the lack of preparation for businesses trading in and out of the single market. No, it can’t have been that.
Never has there been such a profound lack of soul searching at the heart of an institution that needs it most. The unseriousness of the Conservative Party is proven by Truss and her predecessor. Of course the prevailing winds – Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, the global economic climate – may have made their jobs harder. But it is strange that she and Johnson seem to have forgotten that it is precisely the task of the prime minister to trim the sails and change tack. So long as the party’s leaders blame their track-record on all of these external circumstances they are doomed to repeat their egregious failures.
[ Liz Truss comeback bid gets cool reception from UK government ]
Truss’s self-preserving comeback tour proves the Conservatives are stuck in this self-defeating cycle. She must think that there is still a constituency in her party that is receptive to her low-tax and high-growth fantasy. And for once she has her finger on the pulse.
The Conservatives have not looked this divided since the peak of Brexit saw internecine warfare tear down a prime minister, squander plenty of workable Brexit deals and the party eat itself like Oruboros swallowing its tail. The dividing lines now are as stark but they have taken on a different hue. Where once it was the ERG hardliners at the throats of the softer technocrats, now it is the low-tax populists losing the war against the self-proclaimed fiscal “grown ups” in the room. The former’s standard bearer is Truss and the latter’s chancellor Jeremy Hunt.
Truss may have seen her economic vision thwarted for now. But that does not mean the appetite for it has dissipated. This is the delusional heart of the current incarnation of the Conservative Party: unable to learn from mistakes, too embarrassed to acknowledge recent history, condemned to live out the consequences of their fantasies.
The hopeful truth of the matter is that there will not be a Conservative government for much longer. It is the best thing that could happen to them.