Sunday, November 27

Ms Truss’s brand of havoc has got Britain moving… towards the resurgent Labor party | Andrew Rawnsley

The slogan for this week’s Conservative conference is “Getting Britain Moving”. Good to their word, the government has already generated some highly dramatic movements – the pound plunging, mortgage rates surging and the morale of Conservative MPs crashing as their party’s poll rating drops to a multi-decade low. One veteran Tory MP reports that a younger colleague “rang me and said: ‘What should we do?’ I replied: ‘Prepare for opposition.’”

The financial earthquakes triggered by the Truss regime have been accompanied by what feels like a major shift in the tectonic plates of politics. At their party’s conference in Liverpool, Labor people spoke with growing conviction that they can win the next election, something none of them believed back in 2019. Among Tories, there is not only a fatalistic expectation that they are heading towards the exit, there is mounting dread of a defeat of landslide proportions, something none among them thought possible when they were handed a chunky parliamentary majority less than three years ago. You can still find Tories who think they can glimpse a path to recovery, but the optimists have shriveled in number since Kamikaze Kwarteng and Calamity Liz arrived in Downing Street to unleash their special brand of havoc. There are even some Tories who speak of their own party in the way that they used to talk about Labor when it was led by Jeremy Corbyn: too dangerous to be anywhere near power.

The voters are also becoming convinced that we will have a change of government at the next election. Labor has started racking up double-digit leads in the opinion polls. One recent poll reported a sensational 33-point advantage for Sir Keir Starmer’s party. That’s the biggest for any party since Tony Blair was in his pomp in the late 1990s. Though unlikely to be replicated at an election, that’s a heart-quickener for Labor and a heart-stopper for Tories.

The first party conference of a newly elected leader is usually a victory lap, a time to triumphantly bask in the love of the faithful. I expect Liz Truss will get a standing ovation from the hall in Birmingham, but the effusions of the members who put her there will jar with everyone outside the conference bubble. She’s got no democratic mandate for her wild gamble with the nation’s economy and its people’s livelihoods, and she has already lost a confidence vote in the financial markets. Rather than enjoy a honeymoon with her parliamentary party and the electorate, some of her MPs are already putting her on the political equivalent of death row. As for preferred prime minister, a question that normally favors the incumbent, our latest Opinium poll reports a 17-point lead for Sir Keir. Ms Truss hasn’t yet completed a full month in Downing Street and her approval rating is worse than any score for Boris Johnson even at the height of Partygate.

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This reversal in fortunes is explained by a reversal of roles. When they were last asked to choose a government, most voters regarded Labor as a crazy party that they simply could not trust with office. They recoiled from what they saw as an alarming outfit run by ideological fanatics and consigned Labor to a defeat so bad that its parliamentary representation was crushed to its lowest level since 1935.

Under Sir Keir, Labor has become a party in the hands of solid citizens saying stuff that sounds sensitive. The appearance of the conference told its own story. The number of delegates sporting badges, lanyards and T-shirts bearing shouty slogans was sharply down. The number wearing suits and neat haircuts was significantly up. They sang the national anthem. The backdrop to the platform was a huge union flag. The sums allocated to new policies were relatively and cautiously modest.

They gave a standing ovation to a leader’s speech in which Sir Keir declared that his would be a “responsible government” that wouldn’t pretend it could “do good Labor things as quickly as we might like” and would have “the courage to make very difficult choices”. The word responsible came up a lot. The delegates ovated for the shadow chancellor when Rachel Reeves proclaimed: “Labour is the party of economic responsibility and the party of social justice”. These are voter-bidding formulae when the Tories present as the party of economic recklessness and social injustice. As sterling tumbled, debt markets went into meltdown and mortgage offers suddenly evaporated, platform speakers in Liverpool took care not to crow about the chaos unleashed by the government. The tone was sober. Rightly so. If anything haunted Labor in Liverpool, it was the thought of the awful financial mess and eviscerated public realm that they may inherit. “Really frightening,” said one member of the shadow cabinet.

Labour’s leader was cheered when he channeled Sir Tony by declaring “we are the party of the center ground. Once again, the political wing of the British people.” It is now the Tories who have put their party in the hands of ideological maniacs. They have become the political wing of rightwing, ultra-free market thinktanks. This began with Brexit, continued with the purge or self-exile of Tory moderates and has culminated in Ms Truss. No one voted for her to become prime minister other than a tiny cadre of 81,000 Conservative members whose views are highly unrepresentative of public opinion. Just 50 Tory MPs had her as their first choice for prime minister. One senior Conservative shudders at what he calls “the Corbynification” of his party.

As zealots are wont to do, Ms Truss and her small band of believers are intoxicated with their ideology, rigid in their beliefs, contemptuous of alternative points of view and heedless of the risks of treating Britain as an experimental laboratory for their theorems. That is why the mini-budget became a maxi-disaster. The pound has whipsawed so violently that at one point it fell to a historic low against the dollar. A doom loop in the debt markets became so scary that the Bank of England had to make a massive emergency intervention for fear that some pension funds were about to go bust.

‘I can’t see Truss recovering from this and Kwarteng has blown his credibility,” says one former Tory cabinet minister. “Credibility is like virginity. Once you’ve lost it, you can’t get it back.” Many Tory MPs think their reputation as the party of economic competence, never truly served in the first place, has been fatally trashed. But as zealots are wont to do, Ms Truss and her chancellor of her blame everyone but themselves. And as zealots are also wont to do, they are refusing to compromise with reality. Since the eruption of the crisis they caused, the PM and her chancellor have spent most of their time in hiding. When they have emerged, stuttering their way through how-not-to-do-it interviews, they have refused to acknowledge that it was a confidence-crashing mistake to promise unfunded tax cuts at a time when both inflation and borrowing are high.

That leaves the Tory leader in a trap of her own making. If she reverses course, as bodies such as the IMF recommend, she will annihilate what little there is left of her chancellor’s standing de ella and shred her own de ella as well. Ideology and instinct will impel her to double down. That would mean trying to make the government’s sums add up with a savage squeeze on public spending. This will break the pledges on which the Conservatives won the last election and collide with a ferocious combination of resistance from scared Tory MPs, protesting public sector workers and furious voters. “We’re going to go down in flames,” says one of the many Tories in whom anger rubs shoulders with despair.

In politics, success breeds success and failure feeds failure. The more it looks as though Sir Keir is heading for Number 10, the more he will wield authority over his party, enjoy credibility with the media and have an audience for his prospectus of him with the public. Some people will always find the Labor leader less than exciting, but the Tories have created conditions in which he increasingly looks like more of an asset than a handicap. The voters are exhausted with the perpetual cycle of crisis and psychodrama engineered by the Conservatives.

The more certain it seems that the Tories will be shown the door, the more desperate, divided and deranged they will become. Some of them have already concluded that it would be better for both their party and the country if they were removed from power. Britain is getting moving. Running for her life from the Conservatives.

Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer

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