Sacking Kwasi Kwarteng won’t save Liz Truss
It won’t work. Liz Truss has sacked Kwasi Kwarteng to save her premiership. All she has done is to delay her appointment with doom. She will be despatched in political disgrace either by her turbulent party or an angry electorate.
The nearest historical parallel we have is Norman Lamont’s dismissal in 1993. He had been the Chancellor on Black Wednesday, when the pound was forced out of Europe’s exchange-rate club. He limped on for eight months—much longer than Kwarteng—but in the end John Major despatched him to the backbenches. Much good did it do the Tories. The month before Lamont’s dismissal, they lagged 15 points behind Labour. The months afterwards, the gap was 17 points. Major went on to lead his party to its worst defeat since 1906.
When it comes to government personalities, the reputation of the prime minister matters far, far more than that of any other minister. As far as voters are concerned, new policies are ultimately the prime minister’s. When they go wrong, it is the prime minister’s fault. If a U-turn results, it is the prime minister’s doing. If voters end up concluding that the government is useless, it is the prime minister who is the target of their fury.
This is clear from the polls. One month ago, when Truss had just taken over, Ipsos found voters were evenly divided—satisfied 27 per cent, dissatisfied 29 per cent; almost half of all voters hadn’t yet made up their minds. This week—prior to Kwarteng’s dismissal—her rating had slumped to minus 51 (satisfied 16 per cent, dissatisfied 67 per cent). In half a century of polls by Ipsos (formerly Mori) no prime minister has crashed so far, so fast.
It is hard to see Truss turning this round. The more she blames Kwarteng and his policies, the more she provokes the response: “You were in charge, you signed off the policies you now condemn. One of the crucial qualities needed in a prime minister is judgment. However much you dress it up, you now show yourself up to be a lousy judge of people and measures. And don’t even try to say you had nothing to do with last month’s mini-budget. We certainly don’t want our country to be led by someone who is so easily persuaded to adopt such disastrous policies.”
On the other hand, the more she accepts her share of responsibility, voters will wonder why Kwarteng is being made to pay the price of failure alone. If it was right for him to go, shouldn’t she go, too?
There is, though, a deeper point which goes beyond the specific elements of the U-turns that will now take place. Truss and Kwarteng have worked together on a huge political project for many years. They believed profoundly in a low-tax, small-government, market-driven philosophy promoted by a clutch of right-wing campaigns masquerading as objective think tanks. They include the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Adam Smith Institute and the Taxpayers’ Alliance. The mini-budget that has now blown up in Truss’s face was the apotheosis of their philosophy.
It is not just the personal fate of Truss that is now in question, but the future of her philosophy. Her new chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, has never subscribed to the prime minister’s ideological beliefs. He is now in a powerful position, as Truss cannot afford lose a second chancellor quickly. He can insist on a new direction that puts public services and sound public finances ahead of tax cuts, and which, implicitly, turns away from the agenda of the Tory right, and its enthusiasts in the European Reform Group. We should not be surprised if Hunt uses his strength in other areas, such as overriding the ERG and ending the battle with Brussels over the Northern Ireland protocol.
But can Truss admit that she is not simply tweaking some misjudged tax proposals but junking the whole basis on which she won the leadership election? It’s worth remembering that the key moment in that contest was when she secured the ERG’s backing. This enabled her to overtake Penny Mordaunt among Tory MPs, and so reach the runoff vote by local party members. Sacking Kwarteng was relatively easy compared with the challenge to come: deciding whether to tell the people to whom she owes her premiership that their ideas are, after all, completely wrong.
In her press conference this afternoon, she gave no indication that she will say any such thing. She talked of market reactions and the need to maintain stability. She admitted no past errors. Hunt will surely insist a different, more pragmatic, stance in both word and deed. So the drama is not over. The Tory right has suffered a major setback. Its prospects look bleak. But it has not yet been finally vanquished.
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