Voices: How fascinating – Tory Corbynism is likely to be as successful as the Labour version

Benjamin Zander, the conductor, taught his students not to swear when they made a mistake, but to say: “How fascinating.”

This is good advice for political commentators too. I didn’t think Liz Truss would win the Conservative leadership election, and I didn’t think that, having won it, she would stick in government to her policy of tax cuts for the rich.

She didn’t just stick to it, though, she went further. In the closing stages of the leadership campaign she dismissed a chart showing that the better-off would gain most from cutting national insurance contributions by saying she was just putting things back to where they were before Rishi Sunak’s tax rise.

But on Friday, her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, cut the top rate of income tax for people earning more than £150,000 a year. That wasn’t reversing a recent tax rise. It wasn’t honouring a manifesto promise. It was sheer Tory Corbynism: a belief system at odds with conventional politics.

How fascinating.

The parallels with Labour’s experiment of departing from the centrist consensus are striking. It is as if a large part of the Tory party has had enough of bending to the mush of the middle ground, thinks it is failing, and has decided it might as well say what it thinks. They think the voters will respect politicians who believe in something.

That means that Trussonomics, like Corbynism, is not an argument with the opposition, but with members of its own party. As Rachel Wolf, the co-author of the 2019 Tory manifesto, put it: “The new government’s policies are focused on reversing every decision that has irritated them – and many of their colleagues – of the last decade. The enemy isn’t Labour. It is others in the Conservative Party.”

Truss’s supporters, like Corbyn’s, are less interested in criticising the other party than in accusing those in their own party of working for the other side; the insult of choice for Trussites to throw at Tories who disagree with them is “socialists”.

Truss’s premiership is built on trashing everything her party has done since 28 November 1990, a date when, according to myth, the Conservatives ceased to be a true Conservative party. This myth is like the origin story of Corbynism, which is that Labour was a true socialist party between 1945 and 1951 – ignoring postwar austerity, founding Nato and acquiring the atom bomb. The Tory version requires Margaret Thatcher’s resolute commitment to balanced budgets to be similarly overlooked.

The Tory version is a bit more complicated than actual Corbynism, because Jeremy Corbyn’s purity had never been sullied by the compromises of office. Truss was a member of the Tino government (Tory In Name Only) and Kwasi Kwarteng an enthusiastic advocate of deeper public spending cuts in the 2010-15 parliament. He wrote a pamphlet in 2012 proposing a 20 per cent pay cut for any chancellor who failed to balance the books.

Labour has noticed that Truss and Kwarteng are now saying that Major, Cameron, May and Johnson were wrong and socialist to worry about soppy notions of fairness, and if Keir Starmer can’t make that work at his party’s annual conference in the next few days he doesn’t deserve to win.

One member of the shadow cabinet told me they still couldn’t believe that the Tories had got rid of Boris Johnson: “There is a group of voters that no one else in the Tory party can appeal to.” Not only that, but the Tories had dispensed with their next best option. “We would have found it difficult against Rishi,” they said. The message was “no complacency”, but the subtext was: we are going to take these people down.

The final similarity between Tory Corbynism and the original is that Truss was the choice of party members against the better judgement of MPs. Truss is not as isolated in her parliamentary party as Corbyn was in his, but the most notable sound in the Commons as Kwarteng delivered his Budget was the silence on the Conservative benches.

At this point we should pause and say: how fascinating. Could the shadow cabinet, most Tory MPs (in private), most economists, independent think tanks and the markets all be wrong? It seems obvious to them, and to me, that Tory Corbynism isn’t going to work. But Corbyn nearly became prime minister in 2017, so we should consider how it might.

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It might be that the median voter doesn’t really care about “fairness”, and that they are unoffended by tax cuts for the rich as long as there are tax cuts for them. That could be true in good times, but it seems unlikely that it will be true in the next two years, when any tax cuts for those on middle incomes are going to be wiped out by rises in energy bills.

Or it might be that Truss is lucky: that Putin falls, the Russian gas starts flowing again and the British economy bounces back in time for an election in 2024. Even then, interest rates will be high, the national debt will be rising unsustainably and Labour will be able to pose as the fiscally responsible party, proposing a windfall tax even if there is no windfall any more. There will be other “tax loopholes” for the rich and big corporations to be closed.

It is fascinating to speculate about how Truss might succeed, but in the end it seems likely that Tory Corbynism is going to go the way of the Labour original.