Thursday, 29 September 2022

Has Liz Truss Doomed the Tories?

It's probably an outlier, but having done its field work at the height of government-induced market chaos, Thursday's YouGov poll was a devastating bombing run on the Tories' political position. If Liz Truss thought she could get through her self-inflicted crisis while keeping her voters together, those hopes lie buried at the bottom of a crater. The Tories are on 21%, while Labour are surging ahead on 54%. You'd have to go back to December 1997 to find Labour leads greater than 33 points. Depending on who you speak to, if this was replicated at a general election the Tories would be left with between three and 64 seats. Meanwhile, Labour would enjoy a 346 seat majority. On the calmer side of things, Survation today granted Labour a 21-point lead, Delta Poll 19, and Redfield Wilton 17. To repeat what I've already said elsewhere - no new Prime Minister has ever been so behind in the polls this early, nor has their position deteriorated so quickly.

What can we take from this? The first is Truss made the cardinal error of directly attacking her own base. The torrid time the pound has had on the markets might have got shrugged off by enough Tory voters as worthwhile if it meant freezing the unit price of energy. But Truss went beyond that. She decided to affect a wealth transfer, for want of a better catchphrase, from the many to the few. She has destroyed the party's reputation for economic competence - a point underlined by her 11th hour decision to hold emergency talks with the Office for Budgetary Responsibility. And, if she stays the ruinous course, the collapsing pound will see inflation eat the savings of Middle England, tumbling gilts threatening the pension funds of the core Tory vote, and rising interest rates delivering crippling mortgage repayments. Some say Tory voters are masochistic, but they're mistaken. Others are supposed to do the suffering, not them.

Tory MPs will be worried. Remember, they were twitchy about Boris Johnson because he was responsible for a persistent but, by this week's standards, modest poll deficit. Looking at the numbers, and Truss's pitiful performance on her now-celebrated BBC local radio round, the mood can only darken further. At Tory conference next week, the Prime Minister can only look forward to polite, if not pitying applause while the fringe meetings, the tables of vol-au-vents, the bars, and hotel rooms off the beaten track are backdrops for plotting and organising rebel votes. Buyers' remorse will be the dominant aspect among many erstwhile Truss supporters, while the realisation kicks in that coming back from such a catastrophic political misjudgement might not be possible. The ghost of Black Wednesday is set to stalk the conference hall.

And how about Keir Starmer, how pretty is he sitting? What has been frustrating about Labour throughout his tenure is a refusal to make the political weather. It's as if Waiting for Godot was the Labour leader's inspiration. He'd only move if the public were determined to be on side, and even as late as August's announcement of the £1,971 energy bill freeze it tailed the smaller parties, the consensus of the centrist commentariat, and the polls. But conference seemed to invigorate him. Apart from the predictable but no less disgusting adoption of a points-based immigration scheme, Labour was held to have had a very good conference. No infighting, the revelations of Al-Jazeera's Labour Files documentary didn't trouble mainstream coverage, and several eye-catching policies were unveiled. No fossil fuel generation by 2030, council house building programme, nationalising the trains, a new state-owned energy supplier, these are good, recognisably Labourist, policies. While Starmer has a credibility gap thanks to the brutal and cynical ways he's waged factional warfare for two years, he has now definitely positioned Labour as the social democratic alternative to Tory class war. Just like every other Labour Prime Minister for as long as there have been Labour Prime Ministers, Starmer in Number 10 will have to be held to his promises. Winning an election is never job done as far as the labour movement is concerned.

But has this had an effect on the polls? I mean, who watches Labour conference? The absence of newsworthy discord helps Labour's cause. The flashing of some of these policies across the news bulletins, particularly the ambitious energy generation target, would certainly have captured the imagination of some. But all in all, Starmer and Labour succeeded precisely because it was Tory disaster that dominated the news cycle, with competent and government-ready vibes stoked by most media outlets slipping through the cracks.

This creates additional problems for Truss, on top of the we're-going-to-lose-an-election-to-these-guys difficulty. Assuming she clings to office for the next two years (what ambitious Tory would want the job now, save perhaps a resurrected Johnson?), she might just carry on regardless without paying heed to the annihilation ahead. Why not screw everything up and leave government in such a state that Labour can't be after Starmer receives the Downing Street keys. Isn't this what John Major did? Following the triple whammy of Black Wednesday, the pits closure programme, and charging VAT on energy, he lurched from crisis to crisis but still consolidated the Thatcherite settlement. They bedded down the neoliberal counter revolution in public services, and shackling the labour movement with further anti-trade union laws. There are, however, two key differences between then and now.

The disputes in Major's second government were quite narrow: they were over the perennial Tory obsession, the European Union, and Major's suitability to carry on. Unanimity continued where it mattered. Furthermore, after the Poll Tax riots and the solidarity movement that sprang up against further pit closures, labour movement opposition became muted. New Labour happened because, in the main, trade unionism and "traditional" Labourist ideas had been dealt a crippling blow. Neither of these apply to Truss's government. Her economic programme, such as it is, endangers her party's voter coalition and therefore the party itself. The prospect of so-called red wall Tories happily voting through the package as is looks doubtful. Self-preservation trumps principle for the most hardened right wing ideologue. Major got his meat and gravy through the Commons. There's little chance Truss could pass the tiniest bit of gristle. Second, the labour movement are not quiescent. Quite the opposite. Truss might fancy she could defeat key unions, but that's difficult when she's under attack on multiple other fronts thanks to her ridiculous and politically unnecessary provocations.

It looks like curtains for the Tories then, as if we're living through the moment where their position is irrecoverable, and no matter what Starmer does - how he misspeaks or blunders - can take away from the Tories' downward spiral. We always knew Liz Truss would spell disaster for her party. But no one could have forecast that the doom would arrive so quickly.

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Shai Masot said...

I wouldn’t want Labour to win on an old-fashioned Tory-lite platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.

Robert Dyson said...

I am looking forward to some future history that explains how it all went so badly wrong with days. "Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall". For once I will watch some of the Tory conference. What an end to QE2's Jubilee year that she chose to miss. I'm a long term fan of what are now the 'Mile End Road Economists', I hope an incoming Labour governments takes them opn to plot the course.