Why the Tory Party is inflicting its madness on the rest of us
Liz Truss in her happy place: before an audience of Tory members.
Hello. I wasn’t going to write about politics again this week but argh there’s so much going on…
It is a given among those who study public opinion that on any survey there is always some small minority of people who will tick the crazy box. The blogger Scott Alexander coined a term for this: the Lizardman’s Constant, named after a poll which found that 4% of Americans think that reptilian people control the world.
It’s not actually constant, of course. In a YouGov survey from 2021, 73% of Trump voters agreed that it was definitely or probably true that “certain forces in America stole the election from Donald Trump by committing systemic voter fraud that prevented him from winning”. A somewhat depressing finding, but perhaps what you might expect given the intense polarisation of American politics. More surprising is that 9% of Biden voters said the same. Who are these people, who voted Trump out but who also believe in his fantasy that the deep state forced him out?
I thought about this yesterday when I saw this statistic in the Telegraph:
A favourable view of Liz Truss has now become one these weird polling anomalies, the kind of opinion you know it is possible to hold, in theory, but which, in practice, you can hardly believe anyone believes. According to YouGov, more British people believe the moon landings were faked. It is quite something. Admitting to positive feelings about Liz Truss has become socially unacceptable, on a national scale. This near-unanimity is, in a way, heartening: an affirmation that in this age of division we are indeed a polis. The British voters are coming together as one to convict the Prime Minister of incompetence. In years to come, that may well be the best that can be said of her tenure.
Truss has entered a wholly new realm; an undiscovered bourne from which no politician can return. The extent of her unpopularity is awesome, in the original sense of the word. Contemplating it is like standing at the foot of some vast, cloud-capped mountain. It is hard to fully comprehend - we can only gaze in wonder. And we may as well take our chance, since Truss herself will soon melt away, leaving just a wreck behind. I don’t think even she is expecting to stay long. Her excruciating press conference yesterday, in particular the way she foreshortened it, suggests someone who can see the giant hook emerging from the wings and longs for its embrace.
For those of you who need catching up since last time we talked British politics, the Prime Minister yesterday announced another step in her reversal of the joy-ride budget on which she staked her premiership. She also sacked her Chancellor and partner-in-crime, the famously brilliant Kwasi Kwarteng. It only made her position worse, but then everything does. The last couple of weeks have made for grisly viewing: it’s as if Ridley Scott had kept the movie going after Thelma and Louise drove off that cliff and forced us to watch as they hit the rocks. Well, one is dead, and the other isn’t long for it. There is almost no doubt that Truss will be removed by her party before an election is called. The only question is how quickly it will happen (my guess would be within weeks, at the most three months), and who will replace her.
Her appointment of Jeremy Hunt as Kwarteng’s replacement is very much the act of someone in office but not in power. Hunt was one of Rishi Sunak’s most enthusiastic backers, versus Truss, in the Tory leadership contest. He hasn’t been a Treasury minister before but he is regarded as a grown-up who at least understands the constraints under which governments must operate. He is now in effective charge of the government. Hunt may only be in the job for a short time. A new PM may accept that continuity is more important than having their own ally in place, but otherwise, by Christmas Britain will have had five Chancellors and three Prime Ministers in six months. That is not the story of a healthy country.
I think we can name the sickness and its cause. As per my half-joke about the polis, Britain is still a very governable country in which most people are not at anyone’s throat and wish, for the most part, simply to be governed competently; a country which has just changed its head of state after seventy years with barely a tremor of uncertainty. No, the problem is not us, it’s them: the Conservative Party. It is diseased. Twelve years of government, and the rupturing, self-lobotomising effects of Brexit, have conspired to create a party which has turned its face from the world and now experiences reality as a series of violent shocks from the outside.
The Tories talk only to themselves and care only about what other Tories think and do, until they are periodically forced to care - by markets, by striking workers, by voters. The result is a breeding ground for chimeras. A delusional MP will find a wide constituency of boosters within the party’s ranks, and any MP without delusions must pretend to have them if he or she wishes to advance. There is a fine line between pretending and acquiring. At the beginning of her leadership campaign, even Liz Truss might just have retained a scintilla of healthy scepticism about her vision of the British economy as a lion hungry for tax cuts. But after you’ve repeated the same applause lines a hundred times to adoring audiences it becomes very hard not to believe wholeheartedly in your own bullshit.
The symptoms of the Tory Party’s in-grown discourse are multiple and chronic. A whole leadership contest passes by with barely a whisper about things that actually matter to voters, like the NHS coming apart at the seams. Everyone wants growth but nobody can even talk about more trade with the EU. Fools like Jacob Rees-Mogg become unsackable and more thoughtful MPs like Sunak debase themselves to win the affection of members. Britain gets a Prime Minister who immediately self-immolates and on such an epic scale that she would lose a popularity contest with Covid-19. The ejection of Boris Johnson now looks like a mistake, not because he wasn’t a terrible PM on course to lose the next election, but because the party should not have trusted itself to pick someone better.
Of course, the Labour Party is insular too, and until 2020 it was led by someone even more unsuited to the job of Prime Minister than Truss. But they were in Opposition, which meant the country did not suffer as directly as it does when the party in power is a basket case. While Labour is still some way from a full recovery, the shock treatment administered by voters did at least turn it in the right direction. At some point in the next two years the Conservative Party will undergo the same procedure. That may be just what it needs, although its condition is now so severe there’s an outside chance that the treatment will kill the patient.
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What I’ve Been Up To
Doris Day was from Ohio; she sang a song about leaving it behind. This is one of my few Ohio facts. Another is that there’s a town called Akron, near Cleveland in the north east of the state, which used to be the home of Goodyear and the centre of the world’s tire industry (‘the rubber capital of the world’). It’s now a post-industrial town with an excellent university, specialising in science and technology. I know this because I just spent a few days there, after taking up an invitation to talk to students, faculty and local business leaders on the themes of my books on curiosity and productive disagreement. I had a wonderful time. If you follow American politics and culture from overseas things can seem a little dystopian. Whenever I visit, though, I’m reminded of how much I like actual Americans - their energy, openness, intelligence and warmth. All of those qualities were in full bloom in Akron and we had a lot of great discussions. If your university would like me to do similar, please get in touch.
Come To My Concert
If you’re in London and free this Monday evening then come to Cadogan Hall in Chelsea for an evening of glorious music by Mozart. My choir is performing what might just be my favourite Mozart piece, the Great Mass. We have world-class soloists joining us and a terrific orchestra. It’s gonna be a beautiful night.
Coming soon: a fascinating and important FLASHPOINTS conversation on how medical malpractice can result from cultural dysfunction. It was prompted by this extraordinarily powerful piece by Merope Mills in the Guardian. If you haven’t read that piece, I urge you to do, and look out for my conversation early next week. The FLASHPOINTS series is mostly for paid subscribers.
This week, below the fold for paid subscribers only: further thoughts on what happens next in British politics, including who might take over from Truss.
Plus the usual sparkling smorgasbord of links and good things to read, including the most reassuring thing I’ve read on Putin, nukes and Ukraine.
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