Truss disaster offers lessons for the Liberal Party

I wonder if Liz Truss regrets winning the Tory leadership last month. Crikey – only last month – since when she has already sacked a Chancellor for implementing a disastrous economic plan she herself supported, and since when her premiership has become smothered in the stench of impending doom.

The polling numbers are frankly astonishing. Labor leads by something like 35 per cent. Only 10 per cent of voters have a favourable view of her. Her net approval rating is minus 70 per cent. I can’t recall anything quite like this.

Only 10 per cent of British voters have a favourable view of Prime Minister Liz Truss.Credit:AP

More than half Tory members want her to resign. That includes nearly 40 per cent of those who actually voted for her in the leadership contest. This, it seems, is a serious case of victor’s remorse.

But here’s something to remember. While Truss certainly inherited wicked circumstances – especially massive government debt at a time of very high inflation – she isn’t merely a passive victim of them. Remarkably, this disaster is a direct result of Truss doing exactly what she pledged to do during the leadership contest: pursue big tax cuts for the wealthy, thereby making both debt and inflation worse, all in the name of economic growth. She’s here because she got what she wanted in the way she wanted it.

Now she’s looking at the reality of that ambition: Britain’s economy, currency, and even Britons’ retirement savings seriously under threat. And so she’s reaching for the biggest undo button she can find, her new Chancellor slashing systematically through everything she promised. At which point, the obvious question arises: what’s the point of her leadership?

It’s easy to say this is what happens when someone pursues an ideological plan in the face of all pragmatic advice, but we should probably pause to consider that ideology for a moment. It’s not quite right to say this is the ideological extension of Brexit. Indeed, in some ways, it stands directly against it. Truss herself supported Remain, mainly because it offended her free-market instincts. Truss never much liked Brexit’s barriers – whether on goods or on people. Her platform of tax cuts and increased migration is trying to reverse course somehow; to reassert a Tory belief in a version of neoliberalism that Brexit abandoned by preferring nationalism.

Jeremy Hunt was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer following the resignation of Kwasi Kwarteng.Credit:AP

Not that hardline Brexiteers ever put it that way. Theirs was a magic pudding vision, in which Europe’s free market would be replaced with all manner of free trade agreements that have simply not materialised. Britain would be in control of its destiny and its borders, while simultaneously enjoying the best dimensions of borderless trade.

In a sense, conservative politics has been caught in this contradiction since about Thatcher, and in multiple countries. Here, it was John Howard, but the story was the same: nationalism on culture and society, globalism and liberalism on economics.

Now we’re at a moment in history where that contradiction has finally stopped holding. Scott Morrison’s Coalition has been torn apart, its liberal wing now amputated as the nationalists got more and more of what they wanted. Now they have a party in ruins. Britain’s Tories may be heading towards a similar fate. Truss is the perfect figure to encapsulate it because really, she’s just the personal embodiment of those contradictions. She’s what happens when the hard Brexiteers get what they want: nationalism and neoliberalism at the same time. So now the victors can inspect their ruins. One poll projects them winning only 22 seats in Britain’s lower house. Out of 650.

Is it possible to have too many wins? I’ve been pondering this since Scott Morrison’s resounding election loss, coming as it did after his miraculous 2019 win. I’ve seen two such “miracles” in my life – the other being Paul Keating’s in 1993 – and the thing they have in common is that they ushered in crushing, calamitous defeat. Possibly generational defeat. For Labor, it gave way to Howard, who won four elections, and redefined Australian politics and society in the process. Even the Rudd/Gillard governments were spooked by his shadow, and the terms by which he defined Australian politics: strong borders, low government debt.

Now consider Morrison. Is there any way to escape the conclusion that if only he’d lost in 2019, the Coalition would now be in much, much better shape? The teals wouldn’t exist, leaving younger Liberal talent like Josh Frydenberg, Dave Sharma and Trent Zimmerman in the party room. Katie Allen would probably be there, too. In short, they’d remain something of the “broad church” they often celebrate, and have a base from which to cobble together the next Coalition government.

The Shorten government would now be three years old, having been battered by a pandemic and the ensuing economic chaos. There’s a strong chance the Coalition – existing in a form we’d recognise them – would be back in government at the next election. Any Coalition supporter who sees these scenarios as I do must surely have a serious bout of victor’s remorse.

Now, who knows? Conservative Australia is now debating whether the Liberals should become more conservative, or track to the centre and remake the party’s image in a more liberal way. But the latter is hard to do if you have no liberals in your party to take it in that direction. The teals are the incumbents now. That will make them hard to shift. It’s possible the Liberals never recover their liberal seats, and that the teals become a constant insurgency. Or, for the Coalition, worse: a fixture.

The British and Australian stories aren’t true duplicates. We have no equivalent of Brexit, which was not a Tory victory but the culmination of a Tory civil war. In a certain sense, this Tory nightmare really begins with a loss: specifically David Cameron’s lost gamble that he could put Brexit to bed. But Australia’s Coalition found civil war in victory, especially on issues like climate change.

Which explains probably the key similarity we’re now seeing. There’s a certain Tory who feels the extremists are now in charge of their party, and who hope that this crash landing might be the chance to remove them and restore a traditional Tory balance. There, as here, victor’s remorse must inevitably become reduced to a loser’s hope.

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