In her 49 days as Britain’s prime minister, Liz Truss terrified financial markets, sundered her party and doomed her government in a crusade to remake the British economy with slashing tax cuts. When she resigned, her economic vision was in ruins and Truss looked finished as a political force.
Yet on a visit to Washington before the winter holidays, Truss indicated she did not see things that way. Far from abandoning her ideological ambitions, the former prime minister used her trip as a research expedition to inform a comeback. Conferring with Republican lawmakers and activists, Truss said she remained determined to rouse Britain from economic stagnation — and intimated that she did not trust her successor, Rishi Sunak, a more technocratic Tory, to do the job.
Truss conceded she had made mistakes: She had not done enough to build support for her ideas and had moved too abruptly on an agenda that shocked the country. Truss did not put it this way, but she had tried to transplant American-style anti-tax politics onto British soil and she had failed.
If Truss had reconsidered the soundness of a program that sent the pound plunging, triggered emergency actions by the Bank of England and drew open scorn from the Biden administration, she did not say so. To the contrary, she seemed to believe her defective strategy of borrowing Republican ideas could be improved by borrowing more Republican ideas.
And in Washington, Truss found a new one she admired: the Republican Study Committee, an influential body within the House of Representatives that serves as an ideological anchor for the GOP and a clearinghouse for government-shrinking policies. In a meeting with Representative Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, the group’s chair, Truss said she wanted to create a similar caucus in Westminster to “house all of their ideas into a collective group, in order to hold the current prime minister accountable,” according to Hern.
Truss floated a few names for that entity. One, Hern told me, was the “Conservative Growth Group.”
Weeks later, my colleague Eleni Courea reported that a handful of MPs, including Truss and several former ministers, had gathered to toast the creation of a group with precisely that name.
Truss’ Washington tour came at a moment of trial for conservative movements on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain and the United States, small-government ideology is facing a renewed test of relevance in an age of populism and interventionist economic policy. The austerity-minded conservatism of the Great Recession gave way years ago in both countries to the spirit of culture war and nostalgic nationalism, leaving lawmakers who truly want to roll back government marginalized even within right-leaning parties.
If Truss has lately taken inspiration from the Republican Party in a narrow, tactical way, American conservatives might draw some bigger lessons from her tribulations.
Here, Republicans are contemplating their own adventure in economic reengineering. Having abandoned fiscal restraint during the Trump presidency, they are now demanding spending reductions from President Biden in a fight over raising the statutory limit on government borrowing. If Democrats do not agree to some form of cuts, then Republicans have threatened to risk a calamitous national default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling.
There is not much evidence that Republicans have a strategy for prevailing in that confrontation, or for avoiding the kind of market panic that broke Truss’ government. Republicans did not campaign in the midterm elections on a defined blueprint for downsizing government. Like Truss, they are pursuing structural changes to their country’s finances without an electoral mandate.
Unlike Truss, Republicans still have time to adjust course.
The conservatives Truss met in Washington did not seem inclined to see her as a Ghost of Christmas Future — a grim embodiment of what happens when you try to revise the relationship between taxpayers and their government without first persuading voters to go along with you. They welcomed her, instead, like a pal who has fallen on hard times.
Accompanied by two colleagues — Jake Berry, the former Conservative Party chairman, and Brandon Lewis, a former minister — Truss visited Capitol Hill and advocacy groups like Americans for Tax Reform. The voluble activist Grover Norquist, a self-described Truss fan, told me he urged her to focus relentlessly on lowering tax rates and avoid other factional disputes within her party. That, he said, is how you build a diverse bloc of support for cutting taxes.
“You do one issue. You do Jack Kemp. You do, ‘We’re the lower-rate people,’” said Norquist, who displays a 1990s-vintage Tory poster in his office (“New Labour, New Taxes”).
In Britain’s immediate political environment, this is not obviously good advice. Sunak has dismissed a fresh push for tax cuts as impracticable; his government is beset by labor strife, crises in health care and the cost of living, mounting ethics scandals and apocalyptic polling brought on in part by Truss herself. A read-my-lips anti-tax message does not look like much of a route to relevance for a former prime minister now returned to the back benches.
But it was a door-opener for Truss in Washington. Hern told me his session with Truss was scheduled to last 15 minutes and then unspooled over more than an hour as he, a 61-year-old Tulsa entrepreneur who amassed a fortune as an owner of McDonald’s franchises before joining Congress in 2018, outlined his legislative playbook for Truss, a lifelong activist who at 47 has served in Parliament for more than a decade, including as foreign secretary.
Hern told me they bonded over a shared view that their countries were on a dangerous path. Referring to Truss as having been “prime minister of what once was a great nation,” Hern credited her with trying to “save Great Britain” even though her attempt misfired.
“I think she felt like she tried to do too much, too soon, and didn’t have a following,” he said.
When I asked Hern if Truss’ fate could inform the debt ceiling fight, it did not sound like he had considered the idea before. But he did not wholly dismiss it.
Truss, he said, tried to impose her plans in a “top-down” fashion that would never work here. Hern said Republicans had to have a “hard conversation” with Americans about how the government spends money.
A congressional aide who met with Truss said she expressed fear that Britain’s conservative movement could “disappear entirely.” Truss did not quite say she expected Conservatives to get wiped out in the next election, according to this aide, but she warned that Britain’s volatile electorate has a way of obliterating political parties in a manner that seldom happens in the United States.
I imagine much of Truss’ party would find it galling to think of their toppled premier plotting in America to revive her unpopular agenda and squeeze her struggling successor. So, it was not too surprising that a spokesman for Truss declined to make her available, sniffing that her office would not provide “running commentary” on her activities.
But one of her traveling companions was more forthright about their mission in America.
Berry, a veteran MP from the band of Northern England known as the “red wall” for its historic tilt toward Labour, told me in late January that it was painfully apparent his party had “failed over a significant period of time” in the task of explaining “why we are conservatives in a compelling way.” His baleful outlook reflected a widespread sense in Britain that the Tories’ imagination and credibility is depleted after a dozen years in power.
Berry, who is 44, said his country now needed “sort of a Marshall Plan for conservatism,” invoking the American aid program that rebuilt Europe after World War II. Republicans, he said, had been admirably successful at forging mass support for cutting taxes and trusting the private sector to govern itself. The British right could use a kind of intellectual rescue mission on that front.
What the Republican Party has not done any better than its British counterpart, however, is persuading voters to give up cherished federal spending in order to balance the public ledger, while holding down taxes. The one neat trick to modern American conservatism has been campaigning on tax cuts while embracing deficits and debt that would be intolerable for nearly any other country — certainly for the United Kingdom. This most powerful weapon in the Republican arsenal cannot simply be leased to besieged British conservatives.
It may not be easy to discard for Americans like Hern either, no matter how sincerely they want to jolt their country from its fiscal laxity. Voters here are accustomed to living in a land of low taxes, loose expenditures and staggering public debts. If Republicans want to engage Americans in a demanding reassessment of that formula, there is not much time to do that before the debt-ceiling fight reaches a climax.
They, too, could find that they have tried to do too much, too soon, without a sufficient following.