It turns out the Tories have been in coalition with themselves—and it has not been going well for them or anyone else and shows few prospects of improving anytime soon.
The most recent character to fall out of the clown car and into power is the new prime minister, Liz Truss. Truss, Britain’s third female prime minister ever—and the second in the last four years—was once an anti-monarchist Liberal Democrat and campaigned against Brexit. This suggests less an ideological trajectory than a malleability that bends toward power. During the summer of primary hustings between herself and former chancellor Rishi Sunak, she revealed herself to be economically illiterate, politically opportunistic, and dull.
The Tories choose their leaders by allowing parliamentarians to whittle down the race to the final two and then letting the membership decide. When the contest started, less than a third of British people knew who Truss was. Out of the final four candidates that her parliamentary colleagues had to choose from, she came third. But once she had made it into the final two, because parliamentarians disliked her less than the alternatives, the membership favored her over Sunak, a robotic performer whom they blamed for raising taxes and prompting Boris Johnson’s downfall. Even then, her 57-43 victory was the narrowest margin of any Tory leader elected under current rules. Truss herself has little to recommend her beyond the fact that she’s not Johnson and was the candidate most Tories found least disagreeable. With a YouGov poll showing that 50 percent of Britons are disappointed that she is the new prime minister (including a third of Conservatives), against 22 percent who are pleased, whatever honeymoon she gets will be short.
In ordinary times, the Tories’ 66-seat majority in Parliament might be enough to see Truss through to the end of this parliamentary term in 2024. But these are no ordinary times. Britain is undergoing an economic crisis on a scale that has not been seen for half a century or more.
The average gas and electricity bills are set to rise by 80 percent next month—marking a rise of 177 percent since April. Inflation is now at double digits and rising. Government departments have started stocking up on carbon paper so they can still copy and distribute their work in case power outages disable computers. The figure of one in four children already living in poverty when the crisis started is set to escalate, according to a report by the End Child Poverty Coalition. A recent poll revealed that a quarter of households plan to do without heating this winter. The largest food bank in the country has said it might have to close because it can’t afford the energy bills to keep its fridges and freezers running.
Resistance is mounting. Railway workers, government lawyers, postal workers, garbage collectors, dock workers, telecommunications workers, and London transport employees are all staging strikes. Teachers, nurses, lecturers will all be balloting over strike action soon as well. The past few months have seen the emergence of an increasingly militant, confident, articulate, and strategic labor movement that is seeking to take the battle out of workplaces and into communities, with a campaign called “Enough is Enough.”
This will be Truss’s real opposition. For now, popular opinion is with the strikers. Enough is Enough meetings around the country are drawing capacity crowds.
Meanwhile, the official opposition—the Labour Party—remains aloof. Having chosen to shift right just as the British working class was heading in the other direction, it has made every effort to distance itself from these struggles. Labour Party leader Keir Starmer ordered members of his shadow cabinet to stay away from picket lines, and seems incapable of setting out either a vision or a program for emerging from the crisis. Despite the disastrous state of the economy, polls give him and his party only a narrow lead over both Truss and the Tories. So long as Labour remains at arm’s length from the battle to maintain living standards, the party’s electoral popularity will be volatile—and the already pervasive electoral cynicism will grow.
Neither Truss nor her party have a coherent, proportionate response to this crisis. On the campaign trail, her most consistent promise was to deliver a series of tax cuts that will primarily benefit the rich. This will give most relief to those who are hurting the least, while those juggling whether to eat or heat keep going under. But after the huge dent that the coronavirus pandemic put on the public purse, Truss’s promised tax cut makes no sense even from a purely capitalist perspective—which is why it has sent the pound cratering, leaving it even lower against the dollar than when Britain voted for Brexit.
Other European countries, of various political hues, are capping fuel bills, sending significant subsidies to the poorest, raising the minimum wage, and heavily subsidizing public transportation. Starmer has proposed banning any further rise in energy prices—a popular suggestion—but ultimately the crisis has exposed the vulnerability of Britain’s market-oriented system and the need to renationalize electricity and gas.
Whatever Truss’s plans are, it is safe to assume that given her inclination toward small government and the rich at a moment where more intervention is need to help the poor, they will not work. Indeed, one poll shows that even Tories have little or no confidence that she can tackle the crisis. Such a failure would mean not only social calamity for those at the bottom but a precarious future for the political class. The Tories gained their thumping majority in no small part by offering to “get Brexit done”—which made inroads into traditional Labour heartlands, commonly referred to as the “red wall” that had backed Brexit.
Brexit has still not been completed, diplomatically, and has not produced the benefits that Brexiteers promised. It is, however, now a settled fact in electoral life and no longer a wedge issue that can split Labour’s metropolitan and northern constituencies. Red-wall constituencies are among those hurting the most; their constituents have the least allegiance to the Tory party. When the Tories lost Johnson, they lost not only a charlatan and a liar but the party’s center of political gravity. Truss enters Downing Street during a period of economic upheaval with little loyalty, direction, margin for error, or time, and as the head of a fractious parliamentary party that would have preferred someone else. Truly a coalition of chaos in a moment of crisis.