News Briefs | Portrait
The Fall of Liz Truss
The shortest serving prime minister in British history
20 Oct, 2022
In the end, the lettuce outlasted Britain’s 56th Prime Minister (PM) Liz Truss. Truss lasted 45 days in the job, the shortest tenure in office for any British PM. While she quit on October 20, her government had begun to fray in the last 10-odd days. Her Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng quit on October 12 and her Home Secretary Suella Braverman departed on October 19. Within a day, Truss was gone as well.
In the months and years ahead, the events of the week will be debated endlessly. One question that will be asked again—and again—will be this: did her career hold any clues about her inability to hold her government together? Was there some trait, some aspect of her life that can shed light on this tumultuous week? A preliminary answer has to be in the negative. As with any other British politician of her age, her career can be summed up as dull and uninspiring. Her first important political job—foreign secretary—came late, some 18 years after she began her political career. Compared to the bright stars of her age, David Cameron, Boris Johnson and even Rishi Sunak, success came late and was fleeting. By the time she left office, her support within the party had shrunk to nothing.
She became PM after Boris Johnson left in the midst of controversies. She pipped the Indian origin Rishi Sunak in a wider consultation of Conservative Party members. By the time she entered office, Britain was already in a crisis. The “cost of living crisis”—a product of the war in Ukraine and the after-effects of Brexit—had become nearly impossible to manage. The Bank of England was predicting an 18 per cent rate of inflation in winter this year. On top of everything else, the sclerotic British economy defied any attempts to speed it up.
In the midst of all this, her Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng decided on a radical economic therapy: tax-cutting to the tune of 45 billion pounds and a fresh bout of borrowings. That plunged British markets into turmoil, bringing the pound to a new low against the dollar. The economic issue was simple: Kwarteng’s planned tax cuts were “unfunded” and that led to a market panic.
That was in late September. Even at that time, there were plenty of hints about a possible rebellion in the Commons by Conservative MPs. An astute political leader would have been alert to the danger. But Truss lacked the political acumen to realise what would have been obvious to any leader: It is a suicidal idea to cut the top income-tax rate when the majority of Britons could not afford basic items. In the 20-25 days since those events, Truss should have realised that she needed to take steps to win the confidence of her people and her MPs. She did not do anything along those lines. When Kwarteng went, it was too little, too late.
In hindsight, the statement by Jeremy Hunt—the new chancellor of the exchequer—on October 17 was the beginning of the end for Truss. Her economic plan had been shredded even as Hunt appeared to be in control. In an acrid session of the Commons, Truss disappeared, leaving Penny Mordaunt—her cabinet colleague and Lord President of the Council—to field questions from irate MPs.
Never in the history of Britain—all the way back to Robert Walpole—has such political incompetence been on display. In all fairness, the mess began with David Cameron’s idea of a referendum in 2016. Since then, British politics has lost stability, notwithstanding a fresh mandate under Boris Johnson. One can blame the volatile political circumstances for what transpired. But the ascendancy of mediocre leaders—ill-prepared to manage affairs in difficult times—is for everyone to see. Truss, a virtual non-entity, was elevated to the lofty position of the prime minister not because she was bright but because she survived the elimination of one leader after another. Survival is an essential quality for a politician but it is not a marker of success. At least not in Britain.
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