Liz Truss enters Downing Street tomorrow to face an economic emergency that is unprecedented in peacetime. She will meet it, we are told, with £100bn of public money, significantly more than what her predecessor, Boris Johnson, spent on furlough during the Covid crisis. This will require a blatant U-turn for a prime minister who spent the summer campaigning for office on a pledge of no more such “handouts”. Yet brute necessity will be Truss’s handmaid. Energy consumers, producers and retailers are screaming in agony. Thousands of small businesses face bankruptcy. After 12 years of Tory government, Truss will be forced to summon Labour’s state interventionism to her rescue.
On any showing, this task will need superhuman powers of leadership. As it is, Truss brings to office no mandate from any national electorate. She was chosen neither by her fellow MPs nor by Tory voters, who variously preferred her rival, Rishi Sunak, or for Johnson to stay in office. In the end, her supporters numbered 81,326 among the Tory party membership, a group which is majority elderly, well off and living in the south-east of England. She has come through an attenuated leadership campaign with little credit to her name beyond stamina. She has been gauche and lightweight in debate. Her policies have seemed implausible, stitched together with cliches.
The crisis may yet prove the making of Truss in the short term. It is largely the result of Europe’s economic war on Russia and it cannot last for ever. Markets will adjust and alternative sources of energy emerge. Vast exploitative profits are being amassed deep in the energy sector and Truss’s reckless promise of no windfall taxes cannot last. Pragmatism – and desperation – is guiding French and German governments to radical innovations. Britain is merely late on the scene, its energy policy scandalously left floundering for months.
To this extent, the energy crisis could do for Truss what the Covid lockdown did for Johnson. The nation will be hanging on her every word. Short-term generosity with public money seldom did a prime minister any harm, and will offer her a ready platform to parade her qualities of leadership. Provided she pursues her past habit of adjusting her ideas to the prevailing wind, she may just come through the next year with her standing enhanced.
The next election is a different matter. Here Truss’s immature politics must evolve fast. Her utterances have been those of a student politician on the make. She wants to “rip up” Treasury orthodoxy and circumvent a “bureaucratic” civil service. She wants lower taxes, lower spending, less emphasis on “redistribution”. But mention any policy – defence, care homes, the NHS – and she wants to spend more on it.
Whether Truss emerges as principled or opportunistic, pragmatic or brittle, a unifier or a divider does not matter much. What does matter to the country is that a responsible government can carry the nation through this emergency. Party unity demands that Truss establish some sort of coalition with Sunak and some of his more able supporters. She shows no signs of going in that direction.
As it is, an alarming burden will fall on the likely new chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. He will find himself inevitably in contention not just with Truss and her court, but with ministers clamouring for favours from his towering deficit. He must plot her path through this emergency, as Sunak tried to plot Johnson’s. He is the one to watch, holding the key to Tory fortunes at the next election.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist
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