Much analysis of Liz Truss’s short and tempestuous tenure as Prime Minister attributes her travails as being the result of her doctrinaire approach to politics and economics. Her libertarian zeal for cutting taxes at the centre of Trussonomics is seen as stemming from her conversion to the right of the party and her embrace of its low tax, small state ideology. Yet there is another way to read her emergence as Prime Minister which explains the current situation that the UK finds itself in. One that it is much more the result of the political process that the Conservative Party uses to choose its leader, and Truss’ cynical exploitation of those rules.
Truss’s political career is a case study in the promotion of the self rather than a set of consistent ideas and values. At Oxford she was President of the Liberal Democratic Society and spoke at their conference in favour of abolishing the monarchy. As a youth she was an enthusiastic supporter of CND and an opponent of Margaret Thatcher. Her ambition, however, was her most consistent belief and the driving force of her politics.
Recognising that the membership holds the last say on who becomes leader, Truss spent the best part of a decade moulding herself into the ideal candidate for the Tory rank and file - parading herself in front of constituency associations on the ‘rubber chicken’ circuit, dining with the membership.David H. Dunn - Professor in International Politics, University of Birmingham
In 2010 Truss was a beneficiary of David Cameron’s attempt to diversity the Conservative Party when, as a priority candidate, she was chosen for the safe Tory seat of South West Norfolk. Once an MP she initially followed the prevailing political winds. During the 2016 EU referendum campaign she campaigned for Remain, but once Remain lost and Brexit became the new orthodoxy of the Conservative party, she embraced Brexit enthusiastically in its most extreme form, sensing where the mood of the party and its supporters were going.
Where opportunism met opportunity, however, was in the way in which the Conservative Party selects its leader, and this is where Truss was to demonstrate her mastery of the game. Recognising that the membership holds the last say on who becomes leader, Truss spent the best part of a decade moulding herself into the ideal candidate for the Tory rank and file - parading herself in front of constituency associations on the ‘rubber chicken’ circuit, dining with the membership. This was an opportunity to learn what the members thought and to position herself accordingly, whilst waiting for the opportunity to exploit the selection process.
William Hague’s 1998 reform of how the Conservative Party selects its leader gave the final say to the party membership to choose from the last two candidates standing. The system’s problem is demonstrated by Truss reaching the membership vote as the second highest-scoring candidate despite tiny initial support among the parliamentary party. Once through to the membership phase, she could outflank her opponent Rishi Sunak on every issue. She also played to the gallery, describing Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as an ‘attention seeker’ and questioning whether French President Emmanuel Macron was a ‘friend or foe’. Truss took the seven-week hustings process as an opportunity to peddle her brand of economic policies to a tiny electorate of around 160,000 party members. This group was, by its self-selecting nature, neither representative of the wider country nor well-placed to evaluate Truss’ plans against Sunak’s more reality-based warnings.
Her resultant selection as party leader and Prime Minister was the culmination of a flawed process open to exploitation by an opportunist. This led to the political meltdown that the world has witnessed over the last six weeks. It demonstrates the importance that political processes can play in the fortunes of a country’s political stability, economic and financial standing, and indeed in the futures of once great political parties. Nor is the role of process over yet. Where the governing party finds itself today is with a Prime Minister who commands neither the support of a majority of MPs nor the MPs of her own party.
Ironically, while there is a widespread appreciation of how untenable the PM’s position is, the rules for selecting a new leader are equally unappealing as they leave open the prospect of another torturous round of hustings and uncertainty. While Conservative MPs may be united in their recognition of the need to jettison the toxic Truss, their failure to agree on a single candidate to replace her leaves them in a state of stasis. An imperfect process leaves them supporting a Prime minister with no authority, no real mandate and nothing left of her programme for office.
Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor is the de factor authority figure brought in to rescue her government by abandoning all its economic policies and then some. Indeed, such is the damage done by Trussonomics that rather than taxes being cut, the new Chancellor has had to abandon plans to reduce income tax next year. So, neither the party membership nor the parliamentary conservative party have got what they wanted as a consequence of this system.
The consequences for Britain’s international reputation for sound financial management and general global stature have been badly damaged by this sorry saga. In time, her tenure will end and efforts made to rebuild reputation and trust lost by this humiliating episode. But the process that placed her there also needs to be revisited after 0.3% of eligible voters were involved in choosing a Prime Minister with no support from her parliamentary party. The process also allows the selection of a very different programme for government without the wider electorate having a say in what can be a very radical change in direction by a new leader such as Truss.
Nor is the consequence of this particular process limited to the Conservatives. A variation led to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour Party by members - resulting in him leading the party to defeat on two occasions to disastrous effect. A similar process in the United States contributed to the selection of Presidential candidates such as Donald Trump. In the US this process also applies in the selection of members of both houses of Congress and both parties have been pulled further apart with the whole debate becoming polarised and tribal.
At a time when faith in democratic politics is at a low ebb and support for populist candidates and parties which seek radical and untested solutions to old problems is on the rise, it is worth reflecting on the nature of the role that political processes play in the selection of the political leaders that we end up with. If nothing else, it is to be hoped that the brief and sorry tenure of Liz Truss as prime minister will allow this lesson to be learned.
David H. Dunn - Professor in International Politics, University of Birmingham