Liz Truss has kickstarted a crucial debate about the future of the Tory party
If her analysis is correct, the implications are hugely significant for the future of free-market economics and conservatism in Britain
4 February 2023 • 10:00pm
Writing exclusively for this newspaper, Liz Truss gives us an invaluable, insider account of her time in office, and it makes for extraordinary reading.
Ms Truss entered the Tory leadership race last summer on a platform to radically reshape the country and its economy
. She received a clear mandate from members and MPs to reverse Rishi Sunak’s tax rises, help consumers through the cost of living crisis, and to pursue transformative supply-side reforms. Just 49 days later, she resigned. Not only did the Tories drop the pilot but almost her entire programme.
Ms Truss has not changed her mind about any of her core beliefs, or about the desirability of urgent change. But she has, she says, learnt crucial lessons. The economy was extremely delicately balanced, in ways that she did not fully realise. Global markets were already febrile because interest rates were rising after years of being kept artificially low
. Crucially, however, the pensions market was dangerously overexposed to falling bond prices
– something she says the Treasury never warned her about
At the same time, Ms Truss says that she underestimated the extent to which Whitehall was opposed to tax cuts and reform, with big government orthodoxy hardwired into the system
thanks to an overreliance on the Office for Budget Responsibility, which essentially tells chancellors what they can and cannot do. She also faced international pressure from politicians and organisations keen to impose a high-tax international cartel
. And her arguments struggled to gain traction because of the Left-wards shift in the UK political debate
. She laments that Conservatives have failed over many years to advance the alternative point of view. They might have been in power but they had surrendered in the battle of ideas.
Mr Sunak should read this essay closely. Ms Truss is careful not to single the Prime Minister out directly for criticism, but it is apparent that she believes his policies to be disastrously wrong: that is why she stood against him in the first place, and spoke out against his tax rises when she was in the Cabinet. As she argues, raising the corporate tax rate to the same level as France from April is a terrible mistake, “hurting investment in the UK and people’s wages, all of which is taxable”. It is precisely the sort of misjudgment that can be forced onto governments by excessive belief in the gospel of the OBR.
Fortunately, a debate among Conservatives about the best way out of this low-growth death spiral has been started – and Ms Truss has made a critical, essential intervention. The statist Tory establishment has had its turn, and the party is cratering in the polls; the free-marketeers must now speak up.
Indeed, if Ms Truss’s analysis is correct, the implications are hugely significant for the future of free-market economics and conservatism in Britain.
The first challenge is the Conservative Party itself: as currently constituted, it is now a Left-Right coalition
that is incapable of pushing through free-market reforms that too many of its MPs no longer believe in. Much of the modern party is stuffed with people whose instincts better suit Edward Heath than Margaret Thatcher
. It is not just about ideology, but also about attitude. They have been captured by short-term vested interests, and have lost the discipline and courage necessary to see through controversial changes. Poll ratings can yo-yo up and down; the one poll that matters is the general election, when voters will judge whether the party has made a material difference to their lives. The Tories will need to be reconstructed after the next election, and new candidates signed up to a coherent programme.
A second critical lesson is that philosophical conservatives cannot simply enter office and act at speed and without persuasion.
They must lay the groundwork first. New ideas and policies will have to be sold to the public for years
prior to the next election, building a grassroots coalition and support for change
. The concept that lower taxes boost prosperity is now alien to many voters;
new messaging will be required for an extended period of time. These ideas have to be articulated intelligently and in a comprehensible fashion to make it clear that they would improve ordinary people’s lives.
The third implication is that reforms need to be planned extremely carefully
: simply winning an election and gaining the keys to No 10 is not enough to change a country at a time when elite opinion is so Left-wing and the blob so powerful. A series of profound institutional reforms will be required, including to the OBR and Civil Service. With good personnel scarce, a reforming Tory government will need to recruit a vast and talented team prior to winning an election, and to plot in great detail a series of legislative and regulatory changes to push through almost on day one. Any lack of organisation would guarantee failure, as Thatcher and Blair both understood. Tragically, as Ms Truss acknowledges, she was caught by surprise and was not able to assemble an alternative infrastructure in the desperately limited time she had.
Ms Truss insists that she still has hope for the UK, particularly now that we are a sovereign country post-Brexit. Reading her damning judgment, however, one is left wondering if any future Tory prime minister would ever be able turn the tide on high-tax social democracy, given that it appears to be built into our institutions. It should be possible, but only if the Conservatives learn from Ms Truss’s experience.