Barring some enormous upset, Liz Truss will today become the new leader of the Conservative Party. Tomorrow she will travel to Balmoral and be appointed Prime Minister by the Queen. Political power is always fluid and since it became clear weeks ago that Truss was going to win this overlong contest, power has flowed in her direction. From Tuesday, she will be able to exercise this power openly, and exercise it she must do swiftly.
The new Prime Minister faces a number of challenges. Truss acknowledges this, promises swift action, and reasonably acknowledges that Britain has faced greater problems before and that we will come through them. The parliamentary majority she inherits to support her in this work is not yet clear. In theory it is over seventy MPs, but it would be a brave Chief Whip who could guarantee their new boss such a majority on a consistent basis.
Liz Truss arrives in Number 10 with a broader and deeper experience of government than any of her five immediate predecessors as Prime Minister. She has experience of the private sector and knows the Conservative Party well, which has become all too clear to her opponents over the last few weeks. She knows Westminster and understands Whitehall. She is, in other words, as well prepared for the Premiership as anyone can reasonably be.
Truss faces challenges on two key fronts. First and foremost, the country needs effective and thoughtful government. The oft touted “fiscal headroom” and “fiscal firepower” the government supposedly enjoys is more illusory than reality. The pound is on the slide, productivity stagnant, government debt at record levels, inflation rising and business confidence sinking.
Therefore, instilling confidence that her government has economic competence and credibility must be her first priority.
If Truss does not or cannot do this, her Premiership will fail and the government’s chance of re-election will sink with it. Reheating the failed policies of the 1970s with the imposition of price controls, first on energy bills and now bus fares, are the wrong policy prescriptions. Like gardens, markets need careful tendering. Appropriate regulation, necessary reform, care, understanding and attention. Both the energy and bus markets have been crying out for sensible reform for years and successive governments have failed to deliver necessary attentiveness.
“We are where we are” swiftly followed by “it’s the right thing to do” are two favoured phrases of the politician who is addressing a policy mess of their own government and then seeks to impose a headline grabbing, simplistic response to a serious and complicated failure. Price caps represent governmental policy failure. Gordon Brown spent and deregulated Britain into a financial and economic mess. The need to respond to the unique problems posed by the pandemic further seduced politicians into the idea that they could control, boss, order, and dictate the economy.
In truth they cannot and they must not. Liz Truss must find the will to make her government return to the principles of sustaining and nurturing strong markets and robust private enterprise. The government cannot tax, borrow and spend its way to a more prosperous future for Britain.
Apart from the security of the nation no task is more important than restoring the economic reputation of the government.
Secondly, the Conservative Party itself needs confidence in its own leadership. Installing its fourth leader and Prime Minister in just over twelve years leaves a certain feeling of whiplash among members and supporters alike. The party likes to support its leaders, to feel a part of the team. The constant chopping and changing of policies and personnel that inevitably comes with a new leader is disconcerting. Conservative Members of Parliament need to be mindful of this over the hard weeks and months to come when the opinion polls will be fragile, consumer prices high and strikes grab headlines.
Most of the Conservative parliamentary party has no understanding of how to stick by a government when times are tough and the news cycle is relentlessly difficult. It requires discipline and steadfastness. The sense that there is a common project and with a shared mission. Pulling the Conservative Party back together inside and outside of Parliament is a vital job for the new leader.
The new Prime Minister needs supporting. They will not be perfect, no leader ever is. They will make mistakes, leaders always do. But the Conservative parliamentary party needs to buckle down, dig in, and get behind the new Prime Minister.