We shall come to the future of British politics in a moment; but first a story.
It comes from John Barry, a colleague of mine on the Sunday Times when I started out in journalism. John was one of the paper’s most effective investigative journalists. In the early Seventies he uncovered the way the Greek colonels employed torture to sustain their tyranny. During the course of this story, John got to know James Fawcett, a British judge on the European Commission of Human Rights.
The two men became friends. A few years later, when they were having lunch, they talked about their families. Fawcett surprised John with the vehemence of one of his remarks. It was about his grandson, then aged 12 or 13: “nasty little shit”.
The grandson was Boris Johnson. Nobody who has followed Johnson’s career will be surprised by that observation, though Fawcett plainly felt strongly enough to make it about a member of his own family. It predates by four or five years the earliest previous verdict on Johnson’s character – his school report saying “he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”
With Johnson now days away from stepping down as Prime Minister, some might regard discussion of these matters as no longer relevant. That would be a mistake. This is because one of the deepest divisions in public attitudes just now is the way people view the departing Prime Minister – and one of the trickiest decisions his successor must make is how to handle that division.
On one side of that division are the 160,000 Conservative party members who are currently voting for the next leader. YouGov’s latest survey found that most of them think the party was wrong to force Johnson to resign, and that if he were able to stand in the current leadership election, he would trounce the two actual candidates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Johnson’s name has been cheered whenever his premiership has been invoked at election hustings meetings of party members.
On the other side of the divide is the general public. Most voters can’t stand Johnson any longer. According to Opinium’s latest poll, just 26 per cent approve of his performance as Prime Minister. At the last election 14 million people voted Conservative. Around four million say they would not vote Tory today – and Johnson’s record, in terms of both his policies and his deeply flawed personality, explain why so many are deserting the party.
If Truss, now the almost certain victor of the current contest, wants to maintain the support of her party, she will continue to honour her predecessor. However, to lead the Tories to victory at the next general election, she needs to win back the vast majority of the four million voters who have deserted them – and open expressions of approval of Johnson won’t help.
Resolving that dilemma will not be Truss’s only problem. The leadership contest has been spectacularly bitter. Sunak has repeatedly attacked her economic plans as unaffordable. He has accused her of policies that would put the public finances in “serious jeopardy”, with tax cuts the country cannot afford. It is hard to see them returning to harmonious co-operation once the contest is over. In this and other ways, the contest has exposed fissures with the Conservative Party that will be hard to close.
Two telling examples of the venom filling those fissures were provided recently in the same day’s Times. Michael Gove, who served in the cabinets of all three Conservative Prime Ministers since 2010, accused Truss of taking “a holiday from reality” with her plans for the economy, while Matthew Parris, a former Conservative MP and commentator who manages to be both trenchant and respected, called her “a bit weird, curiously hollow and potentially dangerous”. His view of her coming premiership: “she’s crackers. It isn’t going to work”.
It is often said at venomous times such as this that divided parties cannot win elections. This is true – up to a point. A more accurate statement is that unresolved divisions lead to defeat. Divisions cannot always be ducked. The test is not whether leaders can avoid battles but whether they can win them. Bearing that in mind, which previous female Tory leader will Truss resemble, as she decides how to deal with the fractious issues of Johnson’s reputation and divisions over how to deal with Britain’s current economic crisis – Margaret Thatcher, who successfully imposed her will on her fractious party in the early 1980s, or Theresa May, who was brought down three years ago because she failed to do so?
She plainly wishes to be heir the Thatcher, not May. But to do so she would first have to banish Johnson to outer darkness, as Thatcher did with her predecessor, Edward Heath. Secondly, Truss would have to junk her economic strategy. Thatcher was obsessed with the public finances. The notion of unfunded tax cuts appalled her.
Thirdly, Truss would need to copy Thatcher’s willingness to defend her views live on television – and the fiercer her interrogator the better. In the current leadership contest, Truss has refused to take part in two lengthy primetime TV interviews that Sunak willingly undertook. She has also refused to submit her tax and spending plans to the scrutiny of the Government’s official forecasters, the Office of Budget Responsibility. Her reason is clear. She fears the OBR would say what respected independent analysts, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, have said: her sums don’t add up.
Of course, until a politician reaches the top of the greasy poll, we can’t be sure what they will do when they get there. Truss’s career is full of U-turns. As a student she was a Liberal Democrat who wanted to get rid of the monarchy. Six years ago she argued passionately for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union. Perhaps she will be as ready to change her mind as Prime Minister as fully she did on her journey to the top.
Thatcher famously insisted that “the lady is not for turning”. On this, if nothing else, Truss would be wrong to emulate her predecessor. She should remain the Queen of U-turns. Jettisoning economic plans that won’t work might be her, and Britain’s, best chance of a brighter future.
This blog was first published by Carnegie Europe