OPINION - Congratulations to our new PM — and good luck with the in-tray from hell

·4-min read
Philip Collins  (Daniel Hambury)
Philip Collins (Daniel Hambury)

Political leadership at the highest level is largely beyond the control of the leader. The long campaign, by which the members of the Conservative Party chose the new prime minister on behalf of all of us, came to its conclusion today. The campaign has been dominated by the least important of three aspects of political leadership, which is the visions of what Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak said they wanted to do. Sadly, there usually isn’t time for that.

The defining fact confronting Liz Truss, which is far more important than any ideological predilection, is her political inheritance. Truss would love, like the old joke has it, not to start from here. She has no choice other than to confront inflation in double digits and energy prices rising even faster.

Every department will be demanding more money and the political fortunes of the Conservative Party would not survive a winter crisis in the National Health Service.

And then Truss will also be pitched straight into the diplomacy of a war in Ukraine. There is nothing you can do with these inherited problems other than somehow try to fix them.

Then, after Truss’s best laid plans have been conquered by the inheritance that nobody can avoid, there is the tyranny of the unforeseen. Most politicians end up being remembered, if they are remembered at all, for events that would not have featured in the plans they formed on taking office. The most salient event of the Blair years, for example, was the Iraq war, which no strategist ever envisaged. Gordon Brown’s time in office was dominated by the 2008 financial crash and its aftermath. And David Cameron never intended to be the Brexit referendum prime minister.

The same contingencies have affected the departing administration. Boris Johnson did not go into politics to oversee a major vaccination programme but, the Brexit legislation aside, he leaves office with that as his major achievement.

Johnson came into office regarding himself as something of a libertarian. He leaves office known for, rightly, imposing a lockdown. Rishi Sunak simply did not take wing during the leadership contest, and it is a strange boast for an avowed economic liberal, but he will always have the well-managed furlough scheme on his curriculum vitae.

In the case of Truss time is short and, in the words of W.H. Auden, “history to the defeated may say alas but cannot help nor pardon”.

It is highly likely that she will be consumed by their inheritance. Dealing with the cost-of- living crisis will be so tough, so costly and will dominate the political space so entirely that there will be little scope to do much else. Whether or not Liz Truss is a self-declared ideologue, committed to low taxes and the pursuit of growth, will probably not matter. Desires of this sort are likely to be overwhelmed by the brute force of reality.

In her campaign Liz Truss gave the clear impression of not wanting to intervene in the energy market nor wanting to enforce or extend a windfall tax. But one thing has become clear in recent days — whatever their personal preferences, the new Prime Minister is likely to be known for running a government that intervenes in the market so it can set prices.

It is all but inevitable, as the polls look bad in the seats the Tories need to win to hang on to power, that Truss will find more money for the NHS. The politics of policy, the survival instinct, will demand that it be so.

This is the vital context in which the new prime minister takes office. The Conservative Party has been in power, in one form or another, for 12 years and time has taken its toll. A decade into the Labour years which began in 1997 there were senior figures who had made it all the way through (Blair, Brown, Straw, Harman) and others who had been around a long time. Longevity brings with it weight and experience.

The Conservative Party has thrown away that advantage. Brexit accounted for Cameron and May and Johnson accounted for himself. With each prime minister a whole entourage has come and gone.

The poor quality of the last Cabinet shows that we are right at the end of a political cycle. So far, over 12 years, we have had three Tory reinventions. Today the party tried to pull the trick again — but it is wearing thin.