When a party falls to pieces, look out for the phase in which it starts to blame the world for its own flaws. In a 4,000-word essay in The Daily Telegraph that would have been funnier but no less absurd if it had been written by Lewis Carroll, the 49-day former PM Liz Truss seriously tried to suggest to us that her time in office was cut short because of a Left-wing conspiracy conducted by those notorious pinkos, Treasury officials and bond market traders. Playing the victim is now occupying the psychological space that used to be taken up by blaming the European Union for Britain’s problems. If this takes hold, the party is truly sunk.
Let us return briefly to reality and recap what happened because Truss herself seems either confused or in the grip of a delusion. Truss had the top official at the Treasury sacked and refused to allow the Office for Budget Responsibility to publish forecasts. She was proved to be catastrophically wrong but now blames a conspiracy of Left-wing civil servants.
In fact, as former chancellor George Osborne pointed out last night, it was the bond market reaction that stopped the £45 billion of unfunded tax cuts she had planned. The cost of borrowing surged and some of the pension providers with more than £1 trillion invested came close to collapse. There is no getting away from the fact that it was the biggest self-created fiasco in modern British economic policy. There is nothing Truss can say except sorry — and she has proved to be incapable of saying that.
We know very well that Truss was warned at the time that her proposed tax cuts would leave this country perilously close to being unable to service its debt. We know that because Truss herself used it as the reason she was forced to sack her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. Besides, the flaw in Truss’s case is obvious to everyone but her. As international trade secretary between 2019 and 2021, Truss was the great champion of market freedom, which she earnestly believes is the royal road to prosperity. The bond markets expressed themselves with great clarity on the Truss premiership and she was forced, against her will, to listen. There is no such thing, she was learning, as a free market.
In fact, one of her predecessors and intellectual heroes, Margaret Thatcher, had a different view of markets. In a brilliant explanation of the sources of Thatcherism, Shirley Robin Letwin showed that it was precisely the discipline imposed by markets that attracted Mrs Thatcher. The bond markets imposed fiscal discipline on an incontinent Tory prime minister and chancellor. It is about as far from a Left-wing coup as you can imagine.
Since the Kwarteng-Truss calamity, current Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has done a good job of calming the markets and bringing the borrowing premium down. It looked briefly as if a period of calm might be reinstated. Truss’s determination to prove that she was right all along shows how deeply divided the Conservative Party is, how eminently ready for opposition it is now becoming. For the first time in British history, three former prime ministers sit on the backbenches. Theresa May will behave with dignity and restraint but neither of those words describe Boris Johnson and Truss has shown herself to be spoiling for a fight. Not since Ted Heath skulked in the shadows while Mrs Thatcher tried to run the country have we seen the ghost of a previous regime so present at the feast of its successor.
There is a risk for the Conservative Party that tax cuts become for the Right what socialism was for the Left — the panacea that has never properly been tried because it is thwarted by conspirators. We have travelled a long way here from practical common sense and it shows the state the Conservative Party has now got itself into. If the Tory party is going to behave like this, then all Labour needs to do is to hold tight and wait.
There is certainly an audience within the Conservative Party for the delusions of two successive former prime ministers. Some of the faithful think Johnson should come back and some of them think Truss was right all along, just as she does. Maybe Johnson carrying out Trussonomics would be the perfect combination of Tory delusion. It is unlikely that the former prime ministers in their midst will be capable of a period of silence. Deluded and seeking vindication, they will take their party with them.