‘She still carries an aura of spectacular failure’: why hasn’t Liz Truss gone away?

<span>‘I listen to her banging on, her eyes oddly glassy.’ </span><span>Illustration: Tim McDonagh/The Guardian</span>
‘I listen to her banging on, her eyes oddly glassy.’ Illustration: Tim McDonagh/The Guardian

The brief and calamitous premiership of Liz Truss broke all sorts of political records. It was the shortest by far in British history – just 49 days, though oddly in those seven weeks she became the first prime minister since Churchill to serve under two monarchs. Her approval rating before she resigned – 9% – was the worst yet recorded by any modern UK party leader. The botched emergency budget she introduced with her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, saw the pound fall to its lowest ever level against the dollar ($1.03). But perhaps the most salient fact about Truss’s time in office is that when it ended, she became the youngest ex-PM since William Pitt the Younger at the start of the 19th century. She was 47 when she quit Downing Street. Half a political lifetime still lay ahead of her if she could find some way to fill it.

Truss is now 48, the same age as John Profumo when his seemingly glittering career ended in scandal and disgrace in 1963. Profumo was also relatively young in political terms. Yet he knew there was no way back after he had not only destroyed his own reputation but likely wrecked the electoral prospects of the Conservative party. He chose to leave the Commons immediately and went to work at Toynbee Hall, a charitable institution in the East End of London, where 40 years of fundraising earned him a CBE. Kwarteng has likewise decided to step down as an MP, though it seems likely he will spend his time in the City of London rather than the East End. But stepping back from the fray is not the Liz Truss way.

Instead, she seems to be modelling herself on another public figure who crashed and burned shortly after reaching the pinnacle of his profession. The 45 days between Truss arriving in Downing Street and announcing her resignation were just one more than the 44 disastrous days Brian Clough spent as manager of Leeds United in 1974. Clough had inherited the reigning English First Division champions, widely considered one of the best teams in Europe. But he decided they were overrated, their trophies won by playing football the wrong way. He was determined to put that right and started by telling his new squad they were cheats. It didn’t work: Clough alienated the players, club staff and directors, who soon decided enough was enough and sacked him. His precipitate failure was a humiliation for such a strident and self-confident man.

What saved him was that it was over so quickly. He was able to say, as he did in a notorious TV interview with his predecessor, Don Revie, on the night of his departure, that he hadn’t been given enough time to tackle the deep-seated problems he had inherited. That the people who fired him were cowards, and he was the victim of vested interests who never wanted him to succeed in the first place. Being kicked out after barely a month was evidence that he never stood a chance. He needed to start again by finding a new outfit he could properly mould in his own image – which he eventually did when he became manager of Nottingham Forest.

Looking to explain why Britain has hit the buffers, Truss blames communism and the London dinner party lifestyle

Truss also appears to believe that lasting little more than a month in a job she had aspired to all her adult life is evidence not of her profound incompetence but of her virtue. The dark forces arrayed against her – what she once dubbed the “anti-growth coalition” and now calls, depending on her audience, the “quangocracy” or “communists” – were determined that she wouldn’t succeed. The problems she inherited were so entrenched – and her enemies so attached to a status quo on which their own status depended – that she was unable to make headway against them. She got the job because enough people understood change was desperately needed. She lost it because not enough of the ones who count had either the courage or the incentive to see serious reform through. They chickened out before she stood a chance.

* * *

Like Clough, Truss is now in search of a new outfit to mould in her own image. She knows this is unlikely to be the parliamentary Conservative party, which will take a long time to get over the trauma she put it through. So she has hitched her wagon to a newly launched organisation called Popular Conservatism – or PopCon for short. It seeks to champion a low-tax, small-state, libertarian brand of rightwing politics. What makes it distinctive, however, is its all-comprehending view of the forces lined up against it. These include the Conservative party in Westminster, the law courts, the civil service and the media, which have all been infected with a stifling economic conformism. The official opposition to the current government barely gets a look-in when it comes to the PopCon demonology because the problem is not winning elections. The problem is being able to govern even when the official opposition has been routed, as happened in 2019. Getting into power is no longer sufficient. The real job is to dismantle the embedded, unelected power structures of the British state.

The PopCon mission statement makes the scale of the challenge clear. It declares: “Successive Conservative leaders and governments have discovered that a majority in the House of Commons is no longer enough to turn us away from the path of Blairite declinism. The institutions of Britain – from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to the Supreme Court to the Climate Change Committee – now also stand in the way of meaningful reform.”

Popular Conservatism exists to give voice to the policy preferences of the millions of voters who keep winning elections, then find that nothing has changed. They are the real victims here. “We want to ensure that those who share the values of taking back control see the policies they support enacted.”

These lines come from a tatty, one-page leaflet handed out at Popular Conservatism’s official launch, in a church hall in Westminster in early February. It attracted a sizeable if motley crowd. I was there, along with various other rubberneckers from the press. The disgraced historian David Starkey sat a few seats away. Nigel Farage toured the back of the room, flitting from one TV camera to another, looking impossibly sleek and glowing with malice. But the bulk of the audience seemed made up of PopCon’s natural constituency: the eager beaver young men (and the occasional woman) who work at the rightwing thinktanks that populate Tufton Street, just down the road.

Here is where any sporting analogies break down: I have never been among such unhealthy-looking people. It wasn’t just the pallid complexions (this was also, unsurprisingly, an extremely white audience). Quite a few were overweight, their three-piece suits and tightly buttoned shirts straining to contain them. The room also had a distinct and increasingly unfamiliar odour: stale cigarette smoke. As no smoking was allowed here, they must have brought it in with them, from wherever they would normally gather to exercise their freedom to resist the dead hand of the nanny state. These people, it was clear, were out of shape on principle.

Truss was the star turn, and she spoke last. The warm-up acts included Mark Littlewood, former director general of the Institute for Economic Affairs (55 Tufton Street), now director of Popular Conservatism (which he mistakenly referred to as “Popular Conservativism” throughout). Littlewood began with a few housekeeping remarks, which meant gleefully pointing out that by having so many people crammed into an inadequate space,they were in breach of the building’s health and safety regulations. He was followed by Jacob Rees-Mogg, Lee Anderson (then still a Tory MP, before his recent defection to Reform UK, though he was already showing clear signs of strain) and Mhairi Fraser, the prospective Conservative candidate for Epsom and Ewell, who railed against Covid lockdowns, smoking bans and the dark threat of restrictions on an Englishman’s right to buy two packets of biscuits. I think the idea was to make Truss look statesmanlike.

In a way, it worked. When she spoke, she had an intensity the others lacked. In part it was because she still carries such an aura of spectacular failure that any public appearance looks like a triumph of will. But it was also because she had the broader vision. Rees-Mogg simply rehearsed some tired lines about the continuing hold of EU law on post-Brexit Britain. Anderson moaned about the petty irritations of net zero targets. But Truss went further, looking to join the dots to explain why Britain has hit the buffers. It turns out the country is in the grip of a debilitating form of groupthink, all the more pernicious for being a combination of ideology and lifestyle choice. The ideology is what she calls communism – by which she seems to mean state interference in the free market coupled with weaponised identity politics. The lifestyle is Islington dinner party chic – lefty whingeing over the Ottolenghi sharing platters along with more identity politics. This ideology and lifestyle between them have infiltrated all the commanding heights of the media-legal-bureaucratic complex that runs the country.

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As she says it, she sounds as if she believes it, which presumably she has to, or else she wouldn’t be here but would instead be serving out her penance in a soup kitchen somewhere. As I listened to her banging on, her eyes oddly glassy as though looking for something just over the horizon, she strongly reminded me of someone but I couldn’t put my finger on who it was. Then it came to me. In her mix of utter conviction and utter obliviousness to how she might come across to anyone who doesn’t see the world the way she does, the politician she most resembles is Jeremy Corbyn. Like him, Truss is convinced the policies she advocates are popular with a majority of the public. For Corbyn it was nationalisation of the utilities, more money for the NHS and cheaper housing, all of which poll extremely well. For Truss it is secure borders, lower taxes and an end to burdensome environmental restrictions. In both cases, the explanation for why the things the public want never come to pass is the same: the system is stacked against the preferences of ordinary people.

The difference is that, in Truss’s case, she did become prime minister, being forced to quit only when the markets turned against her. Had Corbyn’s policy programme during his first weeks in office produced a run on the pound, he might well have felt it was all of a piece: the unaccountable power of the City of London features high in his demonology of the forces arrayed against him. But Truss believes in the wisdom of the markets. It is the unaccountable power of quangos, civil servants and law courts she fundamentally mistrusts. So what caused the banks and the currency exchanges to turn against her? Are they communists, too?

She had no answer to this question at the launch of PopCon, not least because she did not take any questions. But in front of a very different audience at the Institute for Government (IfG) last September, she tackled what had gone wrong head on. She told a roomful of financial journalists and policy wonks that her economic plans had been scuppered by the failure of key institutions to support her. The Bank of England had cavilled at her proposals at a time when monetary policy was tightening because of its own inattention to the risks of inflation; the OBR had leaked that it believed there was a £70bn hole in her forecasts without having done the legwork to cost them properly; the BBC and wider media had failed to challenge the quangocrats on these failures while mercilessly laying into Truss and Kwarteng. “Why don’t you give the governor of the Bank of England as hard a time as you always give politicians?” Truss asked Faisal Islam of the BBC, when he questioned her on her failure to secure backing for her budget. But she didn’t need to ask – she already knew the answer. Her opponents in the Bank, the Treasury and the media were all on the same “London dinner party circuit”.

There are two basic problems with this analysis of why she failed. First, her argument that the markets were spooked by some media backchat – which she believes was ideologically motivated – hardly sits well with her belief in their innate wisdom. The point of a free-market approach is that serious money is meant to see through the ideological bullshit. Truss insists that only immediate tax cuts, deregulation and supply-side reforms can rescue the sclerotic British economy. The markets should have understood that – whatever the BBC might say. Instead, when she and Kwarteng launched their assault on the pieties of the stale economic consensus, the serious money fled for the hills. That means either Truss was wrong in her prospectus for the economy or she is wrong in her faith in the markets. If City traders can take fright at a bit of dinner party pushback, then maybe Corbyn is right after all: the markets really are not to be trusted.

The other problem is the one she shares with Clough: this was the team she inherited. When Clough arrived at Leeds he wanted a clear-out of the established players, but that was bound to take time. In the meantime, these were the players he had and they were the only ones who could win matches for him out on the pitch. Calling them cheats seriously disincentivised them to do that. Truss must have known when she took office that the Bank of England, the Treasury and the OBR were the institutions that mattered if she wanted to get her policies through, even if she also hated the fact that she would have to rely on them. Over time she could have swapped out their key personnel, but to start with she had to work with what was there. Calling them part of the conspiracy against her was likely to turn that into a self-fulfilling prophecy, just as calling your players whiners and losers will make them exactly that.

Both at the IfG and at PopCon Truss repeated a line that has become part of her new stump speech mantra: it is not enough to will the ends if you don’t also will the means. In other words, it can be easy to know what’s popular, or even right, but unless you also understand how to get things done, it doesn’t matter what you want to achieve. But she’s kidding herself if she thinks the means to getting things done is to bypass the institutions of the bureaucratic state. This is in many ways the persistent flaw in libertarian thinking: an assumption that the power of powerful state institutions can be countered by simply ignoring them. Nothing could be further from the truth. The only organisation that has the power to limit the power of the state is the state itself. That means any serious project of reform has to be a long game. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got.

* * *

Truss must know that she is not going to get a chance to have another go herself. Her party is on its way out of government and it may not be back for a long time. Even if the coming general election produces a rump Conservative party in Westminster that turns to a leader from one of its far-right factions, it will not be Truss, and nor will it be Rees-Mogg. They are damaged goods, whatever your ideological persuasion. Mark Littlewood acknowledged at the launch of PopCon that his new organisation was not in the business of trying to find someone to replace Rishi Sunak. He said that the Tories’ five families of infighters and backstabbers were enough – no one needed a sixth. And he is right: nothing about Popular Conservatism suggests a group of people who have discovered their path back to power.

Yet despite this, Truss presents herself and her new movement as being on the right side of history. The tide, she says, is turning their way. That’s because they are looking beyond these shores and her recent local difficulties. Her perspective is now international. Littlewood pointed out that although the centre left looks as if it’s winning in Britain, the country is an outlier. A year of elections around the world is likely to see the populist right on the march, from India to the EU to the US. Trump’s name was not mentioned at PopCon, but his presence hovered menacingly in the background. Who cares if Starmer pushes out Sunak as it will just mean more of the same? What counts is the possibility of a global reset starting in Washington.

Addressing a half-empty room alongside a 6 January truther, she told her audience she’d been ousted by ‘the usual suspects’

Next month, Truss is publishing a book called Ten Years to Save the West (it is strictly embargoed, though most of its contents have been trailed in her public pronouncements – she was already plugging it at the IfG back in September). In late February she travelled to the US to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the largest annual gathering of American conservative activists and their international allies. Addressing a half-empty room alongside a 6 January truther, she said she had been ousted from office by “the usual suspects”. She encouraged American conservatives to elect politicians who won’t cave in to the woke establishment, even if it means “they don’t get invited to any dinner parties”. For a politician touting an international vision, she still manages to sound remarkably parochial.

She may also have misjudged the sympathies of her audience. Though touting herself as an outsider who spoke truth to unaccountable power and paid the price, her critics on the far right point out that she is also the ultimate insider, whose route to the top involved a series of ministerial roles in the Cameron, May and Johnson administrations, including as minister for women and equalities, where she championed LGBTQ+ rights. She opposed Brexit in 2016. She was once a Liberal Democrat. Raheem Kassam, former UK editor of Breitbart news and a one-time Ukip policy adviser, now based in the US, called Truss’s appearance at CPAC “one of the most transparent and pathetic grifts going”. Jack Montgomery, writing in the National Pulse, noted that as foreign secretary Truss had made it clear there could be no deals and no compromise with Putin over the invasion of Ukraine. That, for many in the Maga movement, is the equivalent of being a signed-up member of the Joe Biden/CIA/Nato conspiracy. “So no,” Montgomery wrote, “Liz Truss wasn’t ousted by the deep state. Liz Truss is the deep state.” If there is a global reset coming in Washington, Truss seems unlikely to be a part of it.

* * *

Meanwhile, there is trouble brewing back home. Truss won her South West Norfolk constituency in 2019 with 69% of the vote and a majority of more than 26,000, one of the largest in the country. This time, though, it seems likely she will be facing a challenge not just from Labour but from a local independent, James Bagge, a 71-year-old former army officer and barrister seeking to capitalise on local discontent. “I look like a Tory and sound like a Tory,” he tells me, “but I’m not a Tory.” He does indeed sound like a Tory, albeit of an earlier generation: “A lot of people find themselves in the poo” is how he describes the state of the economy. He plans to run a campaign focused on local issues, drawing inspiration from David Tully, the vehicle repair shop owner and political novice who came a strong second in the recent Rochdale byelection. Truss has been the MP for South West Norfolk for 14 years, during which, Bagge says, she has not endeared herself to her constituents, who have noticed her tendency to use them for photo ops without doing much to address their concerns. “There was remarkably little excitement here when she became PM,” he recalls. It seemed of a piece with her tendency to prefer being somewhere else.

Related: ‘She’s totally lost it’: inside story of the unravelling of Liz Truss’s premiership

Her recent jaunts to the US to broadcast her belief that the woke establishment did her in have done nothing to remedy that. The problem she faces locally is not just that her argument seems implausible coming from someone who was so clearly part of the political establishment. It’s also utterly irrelevant to constituents whose everyday difficulties revolve round housing, healthcare, transport and a lack of opportunity or support for disaffected young people, and whose lives became considerably more challenging after her premiership led to a sharp hike in mortgage rates. Bagge has no idea if he stands a chance, but current disaffection with mainstream politics suggests anything is possible. Still, a general election is not a byelection and a majority such as hers will take some shifting.

So what does the future hold for her? Truss is nothing if not indefatigable. Her rise to the top was a triumph of thick-skinned determination over repeated ridicule. For a long time she was widely known – and mocked – as the politician who set herself up as a take-no-prisoners champion of British dairy products. “We import two-thirds of our cheese. That … Is … A … Disgrace!” she told the Tory party conference in 2014 – yet she still managed to become prime minister. Now, to her shamelessness and her strongly held but scattergun convictions – both invaluable political qualities – she can add her sense of victimhood. There is a reason the Islington dinner-party types laughed at her: they wanted her gone because they couldn’t stomach what she stands for. Let the haters hate. She knows it says more about them than about her.

But what she hasn’t got – and shows no sign of finding – is a vehicle for her political vision that stands a chance of putting it into practice. If the right of the Conservative party turns itself once again into a serious electoral force, it is more likely to be Farage calling the shots than Truss and her allies. PopCon has gone pretty quiet. If I hadn’t held on to that tatty leaflet, there would be nothing to say what they stand for. Littlewood insisted they’re in it for the long haul – searching for the candidates of the future who could reconnect conservative politics to the views of ordinary people. By the time they find them, Truss will no longer even be news.

When Clough left Leeds, his career hung in the balance. After a brief period in the wilderness, he found his redemption in Nottingham. If he hadn’t, he would have been known as an early achiever who couldn’t cut it at the highest level. No doubt he would have continued to tour the television studios to let the world know how he had been stitched up, and how the people who came after him were just the same old conformists, and how the powers that be had their snouts so deep in the trough, they couldn’t see what was good for them. But after a while the act would have got tired and his audience would have had enough. And Brian Clough was a lot funnier and more charismatic than Liz Truss.