Irrevocable Truss (with Arthur Snell)
In her first month as prime minister, Liz Truss presided over the death of both the queen and the economy. What’s going on at Number 10?
Maybe rocky starts are a Liz Truss hallmark?
In 1997, she went on a date with a conservative Liverpudlian she met at a Tory Party party. “I invited him ice-skating,” she told You magazine, “and he sprained his ankle.” The couple survived the clumsy opening act, tying the knot three years later. And while they have not quite lived happily ever after, they’ve been together for a quarter century.
The queen was not so lucky. On the afternoon of 6 September 2022, Elizabeth II met with Truss at Balmoral Castle, her sumptuous Scottish summer estate, and formally asked her to replace the disgraced prime minister Boris Johnson. Forty-eight hours later, the seemingly-immortal monarch was dead.
Arthur Snell—the former British diplomat, “Doomsday Watch” podcaster, author of the excellent new book How Britain Broke the World, and today’s guest on the PREVAIL podcast—can only shake his head. Imagine, he quips, “having that impact on someone—to be so boring that you bring about the death of someone who’s done that job for 70 years.”
Not content with regicide—or reginacide, I suppose—Truss turned her death stare on the British economy. Turns about, she’s a ride-or-die supply-side fangirl. The new PM and her finance minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng—who is, Snell tells me, “an example of how sometimes, the people with the highest IQs are some of the stupidest people you could ever meet”—are not MAGA-style fascists, but rather what we in the States would call money Republicans. The new leadership “are super rightwing about the small state, about cutting tax, about cutting back public services,” Snell explains. “They had this sort of narrow-minded idea that if they just announced that they were cutting loads of taxes, even if they’re borrowing to fund the cutting of the taxes, then the markets are just going to say, ‘Woohoo! This is brilliant!’”
The markets did not say “Woohoo! This is brilliant!” To the contrary, the markets took one look at Kwarteng’s shoddy math and ran for the proverbial hills. You don’t cut taxes and then borrow money to make up for the shortfall in revenue. That’s like quitting your job while maxing out your credit cards, but on a far grander scale. The last brain trust to attempt such a thing was Bush-Cheney, who simultaneously cut taxes and borrowed money to fund their ill-advised war in Iraq. That led directly to the entire world economy coming this close to extinction-level collapse five years later.
In Britain last month, the announcement of the new fiscal policy led to the currency freefalling. Historically, the £ is always worth more than the $. In 2014, one pound was worth a whopping $1.71, but for the last five years it’s been something like $1.35 to the pound. When I spoke to Arthur on 1 October, the two currencies were almost even—an almost unthinkable turn of events. Only when the Bank of England pledged to inject £65 billion into the bond market—and when Truss backed off from her asinine tax plan—was the sell-off stemmed.
It gets worse. After announcing her grand plan, and then watching the markets freak out about it, Truss and Kwarteng basically hid under the cupboard. There was radio silence from Number 10. “It was as if they had both been kidnapped, or taken hostage or something,” Snell says. “It was really weird.”
It became less weird when Truss finally sat down for some radio interviews, and everyone realized things would have been better had she remained in hiding. “Those interviews will be used by media and journalism courses for years to come as case studies of how not to do an interview,” Snell tells me. “She would be asked a question, and you’d hear this long silence, to the point where you’d check your radio—like, has it gone wrong? Have I lost the signal? No, no, she’s still there. She just doesn’t know what to say.”
A key point here: Truss only became prime minister because Boris Johnson was forced to resign. Absent a general election, it was the members of her own party—a gaggle of old, stodgy white guys, mostly; a grander, older party than our GOP—who decided to make her the leader of the Tories. That’s how she got the job. The closest analog in the U.S. is when the unelected Gerald Ford—who’d been installed as vice president when Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace—succeeded Richard Nixon, who resigned in disgrace. But Ford was a caretaker president, and acted that way. Truss operates like she has a popular mandate from the British people. She has no such thing.
The poll numbers are catastrophic. “About ten days ago,” Snell says, speaking on 1 October, the Conservatives “were about ten points behind, which is, you know, midterm, that’s not impossible, you can come back from that, the election’s not due till 2024. They’re now 30 points behind in the polls. So they’ve had a 20-point collapse in the opinion polls in the space of, like, five days.”
When Truss took the reins from BoJo, it was assumed that she would be a quietly competent Conservative—a professional manager type. In the space of a few weeks, Snell says, “she’s gone from that to being seen as someone who has absolutely no capability whatsoever to be prime minister.” Even her own party realizes its mistake and would probably like a mulligan. But unless she resigns—unlikely—she’s going to remain at Number 10 for at least another year, and maybe more. She is, pun very much intended, an irrevocable Truss.
Complicating matters is that the opposition doesn’t have an electrifying candidate who gets people excited. The leader of the Labour Party is a former defense attorney who later became the Head of the Crown Prosecution Service, which is akin to the DOJ. He’s a straight arrow and a man of unquestioned principle—which would be a welcome change after the Boris Johnson era—but as a public figure, he’s more James-Comey-hiding-behind-the-curtains than JFK. Also, his name—Keir Starmer—sounds to my jaded ears like a deplatformed neo-Nazi website.
(Maybe it’s time for the Brits to install a celebrity at Number 10? Hugh Grant, possessed of both a keen wit and the proper political sentiments, can’t possibly be worse than the last two PMs. True, his sole qualification is having played the Prime Minister in Love, Actually—but then, the only other comic actor who went from playing the leader of the country on screen to being the leader of the country in real life was Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and that’s worked out better than anyone had a right to expect.)
For better or worse, Truss is the future. To be fair, she’s only been prime minister for a month, the first half of which was spent mourning the passing of a beloved queen who was also the longest-reigning monarch in British history. And Liz Truss, as we’ve seen, has a habit of starting off on the wrong foot. Perhaps the last month was the equivalent of her boyfriend spraining his ankle at the ice rink on their first date? She can’t be this awful, surely? Things have to get better, right?
I’m not so sure. From across the pond, this has all the hallmarks of ETTD with a British accent: Everything Truss Touches Dies. Literally, in her case.
LISTEN TO THE PODCAST
S4 E5: How Britain Broke the World…and How Liz Truss Broke Britain (with Arthur Snell)
In her first three weeks as prime minister, Liz Truss presided over the death of both the queen and the economy. What’s going on in Britain? Why is the pound cratering? Is Truss really as inept as she appears? Greg Olear talks to Arthur Snell, the former British diplomat and “Doomsday Watch” podcaster, about the situation in the U.K., as well as Arthur’s new book, “How Britain Broke the World.” Plus: a new slasher film from Netflix.
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Buy “How Britain Broke the World:”
Photo: Liz Truss official portrait, in triplicate.
I think the Brits suffer from a continual case of SAD disorder.
Actually Truss is Red Joans illegitimate kid and her real politics are yet to be revealed.
Then the sun will shine.