If Boris Johnson were to vanish tomorrow, who should replace him? The American pollster Frank Luntz asked this of about 200 people atThe Spectator’s live podcast last week, and the answer was Liz Truss. This took me by surprise – I’d have said Rishi Sunak – but there’s no doubting the Lizmania that was in the air in Manchester.
The new Foreign Secretary was pulling in the crowds, flirting with the right-wing think tanks (it’s time for her to be ‘reinfected with sound ideas’ she told them) posing for selfies and – later, in the nightclubs – dancing with her army of admirers. Her events were the ones with the biggest queues on the way in and the biggest smiles on the way out.
She first topped the ConservativeHome poll of best-performing ministers in January so this Lizmania is not new. I wrote about all of this peculiar phenomenon for my Daily Telegraph column and I discuss it with James and Katy on today’s edition of Coffee House Shots.
Tory members like power and follow anyone who brings it (as Johnson certainly has, with his Red Wall appeal). There is no vacancy now, nor is one likely for the foreseeable. But members are also struck by how quickly the 2019 electoral victory is melting into ideological defeat. With almost no debate, Johnson and others have accepted the argument that the problems of the future can only be dealt with by a big, high-taxing, high-spending state.
Even Rishi Sunak has been sent out to bury his own low-tax agenda, forcing through National Insurance hikes with perhaps more to come. Sajid Javid, who demanded the no-tax-raising pledge in 2019, is defending tax rises to pay for the NHS that he now runs. Kwasi Kwarteng, an author of the Britannia Unchained manifesto for radical liberal conservatism, has been sent out to defend energy price caps. Another author, Dominic Raab, was asked at conference why he was so silent and why – as a low-tax Tory in the Cabinet – he didn’t do more to argue against the tax rises. Cabinet discussions leak, he said.
He’s right – which is why we know that, in those Cabinet meetings, Liz Truss was one of just three ministers who spoke up against the tax rise (along with the Moggster and Frosty). She’s lucky not to have been sent into a job where she’d have to eat her words, but as a result she’s so far unstained by compromise. More to the point, her reasons for not backing Brexit – that it would distract from the more important fight to cut tax, regulation and the state and that Brexit might perversely make us more like the high-tax, high-regulation European economies – is starting to look correct.
She’s in this position because Johnson has put her there. He needs a wing man for his own blend of blond boosterism – she brings her own twist, Instagram posts and speeches peppered with innuendo and pop music references. (This is why her critics dislike her: they consider her fundamentally unserious, more of a joke-cracking troop-revving mascot than a leader. But that’s what people once said about Johnson. Some in No. 10 do worry that the PM has created something more powerful than he realises, especially when photos emerged of her getting off the plane in New York recently. As one ally of Johnson put it, such pictures are normally reserved for prime ministers.
If there’s a cost-of-living crisis (which government will exacerbate with the coming tax rises) Johnson will be the face of it. Things will likely get tougher for Sunak and the Truss will be aloof from it all – cutting trade deals and crying freedom. The spotlight on the next leader will then move on from him to her. Sunak will be relieved not to have this attention, she’ll lap it up. I say in the podcast that this might not last for long. Truss has never run a serious spending government department and you can’t be in contention for the top job without having done so. But the momentum is behind her following her recent elevation to Foreign Secretary and her popularity amongst grassroot members – for now – makes Lizmania a significant force in the Tory ecosystem.
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