Is it too soon to offer a small word in defence of Liz Truss? I appreciate that this is a lonely endeavour. In what should be her honeymoon period, the new prime minister has instead presented the electorate with multiple grounds for divorce. Polling suggests she’s about as popular as a Covid sweat. Still, Truss deserves praise for one thing at least. What she brings to our national life is an admirable clarity – though perhaps not in the way she intends.
The Conservatives have been in power for more than 12 years, and for much of that time they have been hard to pin down. David Cameron was elected as a compassionate Conservative, all huskies and hoodies and “the big society”. In reality, he imposed a period of austerity that hit the poorest hardest, starved communities of cherished services and left countless neighbourhoods neglected and derelict. From one side of his mouth, Cameron’s chancellor, George Osborne, said, “We’re all in this together”; from the other, he pitted “strivers” against “skivers”.
Theresa May came next, promising to tackle “burning injustices” and radiating sensible middle England decency. In reality, she had to keep up with a party hot with Brexit fever, consumed by a project that got progressively more extreme. The contradictions increased and the opacity thickened with Boris Johnson, a libertine contemptuous of the standards of personal conduct his party once held dear; a Tory with a penchant for big spending, the bulk of it targeted, he promised, at the parts of the country that needed it most. A “Brexity Hezza” he once called himself, nodding to Michael Heseltine’s support for an activist state, even as he trampled on the former deputy PM’s devotion to the European ideal.
All of this meant that for more than a decade Conservatism was a shifting target, its rhetoric and its action often directly at odds. But now there’s Truss, whose great gift to Britain is a bracing lack of ambiguity. With no distracting veneer of competence, decency or compassion – either real or bogus – she offers instead a nakedly ideological form of conservatism.
Its instincts are unhidden. It favours the rich over the poor. Witness both Kwasi Kwarteng’s now-abandoned juicy tax cut to the 1% and Truss’s continuing refusal to pledge that benefits will keep pace with a galloping rate of inflation: if they don’t, the neediest will have to get by on even less.
It yearns for a small state, one that is lean in size and mean in practice. Truss’s governmental minimalism is so unbending, she vetoed a £15m public information campaign that would have helped Britons reduce their energy consumption, thereby lowering their bills and helping the planet. Truss thought that smacked too much of the hand of nanny, even though Jacob Rees-Mogg – a man who knows more than is healthy about nannies – had approved the plan. And so the National Grid is bracing us for a winter of disconnect, with short days and long power cuts – a throwback to the 1970s as vivid as one of those Channel 5 clip compilation shows that we could watch if only we weren’t sitting in the dark.
This is a naked conservatism that believes in itself with such fervour it thinks facts should make way for its fantasies. Borrowing for tax cuts in a period of surging inflation was always going to spook the markets, but Truss’s faith told her otherwise. She was determined to jump off the cliff, insistent that all the talk of gravity was so much stuffy scientific “orthodoxy”.
The refusal to bow to empirical evidence, to reality, is Truss conservatism’s defining feature. Its origins are not mysterious. We might call it Brexitism: the creed that holds that the real world, even the facts of geography, can be bent to your will, just by closing your eyes and wishing it were so. As the FT columnist Martin Wolf puts it: “Truss does not have a growth plan. She has a ‘growth plan’ – a magical potion into which she sprinkles the reversal of recent tax increases, freedom for bankers’ bonuses and lower taxes for the prosperous, says ‘abracadabra’ and suddenly trend productivity growth quadruples.”
Don’t be misled by the serial U-turns, already a signature of the Truss era. It’s true that she promised there would be no energy rationing, and now we’re set to face the crudest form of rationing, namely blackouts. True, too, that she said there would be no “handouts”, even though her first week in office saw her bow to reality and hand out help on energy bills, albeit help paid for by our own future taxes rather than by a levy on the gargantuan excess profits of the energy giants. And yes, she abandoned the abolition of the 45p tax rate, barely 24 hours after she’d said she would stick with it. But those reverses do not suggest doctrinal complexity, still less strategy. The only story they tell is one of weakness and haemorrhaging support.
For naked conservatism is unpalatable even to Conservatives. This week, one Nadine Dorries accused Truss of “lurching to the right”, adding that a de facto cut in benefits was “cruel”. Of course, the hypocrisy is rank: Dorries’ idol, Johnson, cut universal credit and would have denied free school meals to hungry children had it not been for Marcus Rashford. But when you’ve got both Rees-Mogg and Dorries – the Sid and Nancy of the Tory hard right – to your left, you know you’ve strayed far from even the wildest shores.
This stripping away of the camouflage, this exposure of the Tories’ hardest core, offers one other consolation besides clarity. It carries with it the sense of an ending. For this is how bad governments often die, the mask fallen away, their worst face revealed. Truss will try to rally the troops, stirring them with the familiar hate – even if “remainer elites” and “citizens of nowhere” are now rebranded as the rather less punchy “anti-growth coalition”. But she can’t escape the temper of the times, which has turned against her and her party.
For more than a decade, the country has been ruled by those who have caused grave damage and great hurt. Often that was concealed by smooth talk, a charming manner or wild promises. Liz Truss is not blessed with some of her predecessors’ gifts for deception. Instead her extremism is exposed for all to see. It means we can see her – and all the rottenness that lies beneath.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist
• This article was amended on 7 October 2022 to rewrite a phrase in line with general style guidance.