Ten Years to Save the West, by Liz Truss

Second paragraph of third chapter:

My Brexit referendum campaign started with a hurried and unplanned departure from Europe. It was February 2016, and we were on a half-term family holiday in Paris. The tiny Airbnb I’d found on the top floor of an apartment block near the Arc de Triomphe looked much more attractive in the photos than it turned out to be in real life. We had only been there a few days when the call came from London: Prime Minister David Cameron had completed negotiations on his new deal with the European Union. He was convening an urgent Cabinet meeting the following day to showcase it and fire the starting gun on the promised referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU.

Liz Truss is the only British prime minister that I have actually met. (By contrast, I met Garret Fitzgerald and John Bruton many times, took Micheál Martin punting once in Oxford, and also have had a handshake with Albert Reynolds and a conspiratorial wink from Bertie Ahern.) We were both student Lib Dem activists in the early 1990s, though she is a bit younger than me, and I was in the room when she made her famous speech calling for the abolition of the monarchy in 1994:

I congratulated her on her speech, though not long afterwards we found that our views diverged, and I never heard from her again.

As you may be aware, she failed to last even two months as leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister back in 2022, but ably laid the foundations of failure that Rishi Sunak and his party are now digging even deeper. Her failure really should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Matthew Parris wrote about her rise and inevitable fall during that long hot summer two years ago. Here is the whole piece, but the first of many juicy quotes is:

In Times columns I’ve offered my first impressions of this candidate. They were that she was intellectually shallow, her convictions wafer-thin; that she was driven by ambition pure and simple; that her manner was wooden and her ability to communicate convincingly to an electorate wider than the narrow band of Tory activists was virtually non-existent; that she was dangerously impulsive and headstrong, with a self-belief unattended by precaution; and that her leadership of the Conservative Party and our country would be a tragedy for both.

Most, but not all, of this analysis is borne out by later history and by Truss’s own book, which I have now read. (I got it for free, don’t worry.)

The format of the book is a little unusual. The very first chapter is about her meeting with the Queen, and the Queen’s death two days later. Elizabeth II’s last words to Truss were “Pace yourself.” “Perhaps I should have listened”, she reflects, in a rare moment of self-examination.

The chapters on her political career in government, which form the meat of the book, are sandwiched between incoherent political rallying calls for Conservatives to get their act together and defeat the Left at home and China abroad. The first of Matthew Parris’s allegations, lack of intellectual depth, is amply borne out by these more polemical sections. One is reminded of the old saying that while the problem with liberals is that they only read liberal literature, the problem with conservatives is that they read no literature at all. It’s not that she doesn’t really engage with the arguments made by her opponents; she doesn’t even really engage with the arguments of those she thinks she agrees with.

Her account of her time as a minister under Cameron, May and Johnson (for all of whom she retains a certain loyal affection and sympathy) is surprisingly dull, because she didn’t achieve very much and wants to blame other people for that. She is clearly, as Parris points out, unable to communicate clearly outside her own office, and fails to put the hours in behind the scenes to build up what we in our business would call a stakeholder coalition. She seems to believe that having been put in charge is sufficient for everyone to start doing what she wants them to do. In real life, this is never the case, even in the most autocratic power structures.

She writes of one night that she lay awake worrying about a prison officer, injured in a riot, but apart from that, there is a surprising lack of reference to the human dimension of her policies. There are almost no personal glimpses of colleagues and few of her family. One doesn’t get much sense of Truss as a social animal from her own account. Maybe she just isn’t; but for me that’s one of the crucial political skills.

And these things all collide when tragedy strikes and she becomes prime minister. She explains at great length how the economic plans that she and Kwasi Kwarteng proposed weren’t really all that radical, but simply misunderstood and subjected to unfair criticism; but I think even sympathetic readers (which I am not) will be lost by her depiction of a grand Left Woke conspiracy to kill growth which includes the Bank of England and the financial markets. I was irresistibly reminded of the French presidential election debate in 2012, when the challenger François Hollande killed incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempt to fight back with the telling line, “Ce n’est jamais de votre faute!” – “It’s never your fault!”

In Truss’s world, it’s never her fault either.

In summary, this is a not very good book written by a person who was completely unsuited to the job which she had so ruthlessly pursued. It is clearly intended for the American right-wing conference circuit market – there are many explanations of basic British political concepts for the American reader, and also the annoying and frequent use of “math” rather than “maths”. You can skip it in good conscience; you haven’t missed anything. If you really want, you can get it here.

I think there is also some cause for reflection about how political parties should choose their leaders. Part of this is about having a good team of candidates, which the Conservatives have not had in recent years. But I am also unconvinced that a ballot of party members is such a good way of identifying a good potential prime minister.

The Conservative system allows MPs to winnow down the candidates to two, who are then voted on by party members. A contested vote among members has happened four times; twice party members confirmed the MPs’ vote, and chose leaders who went on to win the next election (Cameron in 2005 and Johnson in 2017), and twice they chose the candidate liked by fewer MPs, who then failed and was booted out before the next election (Duncan-Smith in 2001 and Truss in 2022). Three leaders were elected without the need to consult members, Howard (2003), May (2016) and Sunak (2022); none of them was able to win the next election either, though May (who was also supported by MPs when they voted) came closest.

I don’t fundamentally mind if the Conservatives choose internal systems which increase their chances of electoral failure, but it’s probably not a brilliant thing overall for democracy.