Liz Truss is constructing a ‘collision course’ politics as Labour styles itself as a government in waiting rather than an oppositional force. Dr David Jenkins argues that if the coming Tory assault is going to be resisted, the British people will need to employ militant, street-level action.
Comment: In her acceptance speech, in which Liz Truss made good on the advice she once gave to former Tory MP Rory Stewart to “never say anything interesting”, the newly selected Conservative Party leader and UK Prime Minister paid tribute to her “friend” Boris Johnson for having “delivered Brexit, the Covid vaccine, and stood up to Russian aggression”.
Truss has played to the Tory galleries throughout her campaign, and part of this has meant setting herself up as something of a continuity candidate. Even as her path to the premiership was paved by the withdrawal of support from 60 MPs, she was careful to distance herself from the long overdue knives that were placed into Johnson’s back.
But even with this careful manoeuvring, Truss enters power with a share of less than 60 percent of the membership’s support – she is the only candidate (of four) to win since the introduction of whole member balloting in 1998.
Moreover, and with respect to the day-to-day running of the party, more importantly, Truss is not a favourite amongst those members of her party sitting in Parliament. Going into the selection process she was not the favourite to win. (It is interesting to note that the chief whips – the people in charge of maintaining discipline amongst the backbenchers – all backed Rishi Sunak, her rival during the final stages of the contest.)
Truss has now assembled her team, which lacks any place for Sunak but has found positions for Kemi Badenoch, the ‘anti-woke’, culture warrior de jour; Jacob Rees-Mogg, an ardent Brexiteer committed to waging war on the civil service and public sector more generally; and Suella Braverman, who, as Attorney-General, launched sustained attacks on the judiciary and who now, as Home Secretary, promises an even ‘tougher’ (read: barbaric) stance on immigration.
All this provides part of the party-political background against which the newly formed government must confront a number of converging crises. Spiralling inflation, a cost of living crisis, both of which are precipitating a probable debt crisis for millions of people, an energy crisis, an increasingly fretful relationship with the EU, in which the Northern Island Protocol and a promised ‘bonfire’ of EU regulations looms large, and the ongoing climate crisis.
The British people need to be ready to learn and employ the arsenal of rent strikes, walkouts, boycotts, occupations – anything that refuses to acquiesce to an unbearable and unsustainable status quo.
Where Truss has been clear on how to confront these issues – such as supporting fracking and granting 130 oil and gas drilling licences – her proposals are both frightening and nonsensical. Once an exploration licence is granted, for example, it takes nearly 30 years before anything comes out of the ground.
Where she has been less clear – for example, by promising to commission a group of ‘world class experts’ from whom advice will be taken – her ideological positioning on any number of issues indicate that whatever proposals do come down the pipe are going to be just as frightening.
Truss does not even have the usual orthodoxies behind her. Throughout her candidacy, she has continually emphasised the importance of tax cuts to her economic vision, despite this being largely rejected by institutions like the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and even the International Monetary Fund (IMF). When asked to name one expert who supported this policy she could name only one, Patrick Minford.
As signalled by her cabinet selection, Truss is not reaching across the factions fissuring her own party. Rather, the evidence is that Truss is constructing a politics of ‘collision courses’: We are entering ‘shock doctrine’ country, where it never does to let a crisis go to waste. Europe, borders, workers’ civil rights to strike, citizens’ rights to protest, the role of the judiciary, climate change, redistribution, the so-called ‘culture wars’ – all of these will be used to divide, antagonise and push through an agenda which the majority of the British people do not support.
Small-c conservative – consisting of a politics of pragmatic adjustment in which the inherent complexities of reform must be utmost in politicians’ minds – has always been a useful rhetorical device for the Tories.
But, in reality, the greatest trick the party ever pulled was convincing people it had any commitment to such a variant of conservatism.
As co-author of Britannia Unchained, a pamphlet in which a new breed of Tory politicians laid out the roadmap for a more libertarian, less-regulated Britain, the current conjuncture offers plentiful opportunities to play at ‘creative destruction’ until the next election. (Wes Streeting, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, has levelled the charge that the Tories’ sustained underinvestment in the NHS shows they are even planning to lose the next election, so the clock is ticking on how much can be done.)
For all the talk of a fractious party, with rumours of Johnson maybe even trying to mount a return, the Tories still have an 80 seat majority which the party, their ambivalence to Truss notwithstanding, will wield without compunction.
More worrying still is the fact that it is not entirely clear where a sufficiently powerful opposition is going to come from. The trade unions, in conjunction with some Labour MPs, have launched a campaign, ‘Enough is Enough’, which is making demands for real pay rises, the slashing of energy bills, the end to fuel poverty, decent homes for all and larger tax bill for the rich.
Only time will tell how successful this will be, but Labour as a whole has failed to get behind it. Presumably wanting to maintain their lead in the polls, the ‘managers’ of this supposedly socialist party have done little to lend them support, directing MPs to stay away from the frontlines of railway workers’ strikes.
Labour is styling itself as a government in waiting, rather than any kind of oppositional force. But if the coming Tory assault – its regulatory bonfires, its culture wars, its murderous use of borders – is going to be resisted, militant, street-level action is going to be necessary.
The British people need to be ready to learn and employ the arsenal of rent strikes, walkouts, boycotts, occupations (maybe a British variant of the Indian hartals) – anything that refuses to acquiesce to an unbearable and unsustainable status quo. The stakes could not be higher.