The great man of history theory – does leadership matter?

Shortly after I started as a bus driver at Go Wellington as a Bus Driver I recall overhearing drivers talking about the company changing shifts to reduce drivers’ overtime pay. One driver, a former bank teller believed the problem was the union leadership. In his view what the Tramways Union needed was “a smartly dressed lawyer in a suit and with a good haircut to come and sort everything out.” Instead of this, the drivers ended up with me as their union president, no suits but I did eventually get a haircut. More importantly, what drivers got was a democratic union where drivers stood together and improved their pay and conditions.

The Great man of history theory is nothing new and has been quite seriously rebuffed by historians for many years. In Leo Tolstoy‘sĀ War and Peace he firmly rejected the “great man” (and when he wrote this in the 1860s, it was men who were being written about), a theory claiming that in fact, they are only “history’s slaves.”

Yet, much of history is still written about and from the perspective of our leaders. In politics, it is a truism that leadership is of paramount importance, yet few can really define what ‘leadership’ really is. The common features tend to be personal strength, decision-making powers, bringing together and managing a team, the ability to communicate, and in effect being the human embodiment of a political ideal or movement. More cynically, money, good looks, fame, and various superficial qualities also help.

It is certainly true that the performance of a party leader can decide an election result, and this is understandable as they are in a position of responsibility where they must exercise judgment. The risk though is that the personal qualities or weaknesses are given greater emphasis and boring detail like tax policy is reduced to who came up with the best slogan or soundbite.

This issue is not a new one. Whilst it is currently vogue to blame all the world’s ills on social media, the reduction of politics down to a popularity contest of leaders predates Twitter. It has probably always been a feature of politics and certainly something that has constantly been a feature of democracies. Leaders with deep voices for example have tended to perform better, as physiologically we find them more authoritative.

The problem is, once we understand that to be a successful leader it helps to have certain qualities and mannerisms, those with ambition quickly start to act the part. Building a personal brand based on characteristics common among successful leaders has become the tried and trued playbook of many ambitious upcoming politicians, business leaders, and others aiming for positions of power. Maybe this is just smart and anyone who is ambitious needs to learn these unwritten rules? But when many believe politics and civil society is in decline, should we not think more critically about leadership?

There can be very little doubt about the importance leadership has played in recent politics. My recent post about Rishi Sunak and the state of the British Conservative Party outlines, the challenges facing the UK Government today make it very difficult for the Tories to win the next election. Whilst Rishi Sunak certainly has some of the qualities of a successful leader, he is simply too constrained by the situation he faces to really lift support for the Conservative Party now, though this may change. Likewise in New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern’s meteoric rise to power in 2017 and global popularity shortly after, dissipated throughout 2022 as the current economic crisis hit.

To paraphrase Harold MacMillan, what shapes the course of political history is “events dear boy, events”. Having certain qualities can get one into leadership positions, but ultimately one’s time in power is judged by how one responds to events. And more often than not, leaders only have limited control of these or their own legacy.

UK Labour – can they finally beat the Tories?

Labour in the UK currently has a double-digit lead in polls ahead of the Conservatives. The Polls immediately after the Truss/Kwarteng mini budget gave Labour their biggest lead ever, with a lead of 33% over the Tories. This has since fallen back to a 20% lead, still making Labour the strong favourites were an election to be called today. For this reason, there will be no election in the next year if the Conservatives have anything to do with it. The next election must be held at the latest in January 2025, and in all likelihood will be sometime in mid-2024. Given how terribly the Government has performed, it is hard to see how they could make it back even if the economy begins to recover.

However, just as one should never underestimate the UK Conservative Party as an electoral force, one also should never underestimate the UK Labour Party’s ability to clutch defeat from the jaws of history. It is just under two years ago that Labour under the current leadership of Keir Starmer lost the Hartlepool byelection, a so-called red-wall seat previously held by Labour since 1964. Much has happened since then but given how quickly things change in the current political climate, who knows what will be happening in 2024.

After the last UK election, I wrote a series of posts assessing why the UK Labour Party Lost. Shortly after this, a leaked report showed that factionalism was so bad within Labour that members of the Party head office tried to sabotage the 2017 election for the party as their favoured faction was not in charge. At the time few could see Labour making it back to power in 2024, with many predicting that Boris Johnson would be Prime Minister for the coming decade.

Writing those posts got me some interesting feedback. My post critical of the role of the ‘Blairite faction’ resulted in various Labour members associated with Progress and Labour First contacting me to say that I was obviously an insane Corbynista and dangerous. Later that day I posted another post critical of the role Momentum had played in the 2019 election, to which various supporters of the Corbyn loyal faction accused me of being a Blairite and a dangerous right winger. Whilst it was water off a ducks back to me, it showed how deeply divided and unwilling to engage all factions were at that time.

Starmer was elected Leader of the party in April 2020 having run on a platform of trying to bring the factions together. Specifically, Starmer’s campaign would continue the popular policies from Labour’s 2017 manifesto would be the ‘basis of the Party’s ‘foundational document’ for policy under his leadership. This recognised the fact that whilst Corbyn and the Momentum faction supporting him had become quite unpopular, the social democratic platform Labour ran on in 2017 was popular, more so than the party in itself. Now, in 2022, Starmer has said this document is being put to one side and instead the party will be “starting from scratch” leaving many to ask, what will Labour’s next policy manifesto look like?

The backdrop of course is the coronavirus pandemic and the economic chaos it has caused, followed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Added to this is the economic ineptitude of the Truss and Kwateng mini-budget has meant the UK find itself in a very difficult economic situation. The challenge for Labour now, is that it needs to be seen both as credible economic managers who can repair the damage caused by the current government, yet also present a programme that addresses growing inequalities. In particular, it needs to address the fact that most people under 40 in the UK are now significantly worse off financially than their parents were at that age. The younger voters who supported Labour in the 2017 ‘youthquake’, who were disproportionately disadvantaged after the last decade of austerity, are looking to the opposition to address the growing inequalities and to create a new social contract that works “for the many, not the few.”

It is not clear how the current Labour leadership will address this, with the prevailing thinking in the party now being that people on the left have nowhere else to go, and the priority for Labour now being to win former Tory voters over. The risk is that younger voters and voters on the left become disillusioned and stay at home, or cast a protest vote for The Greens or some other candidate. This may not seem a problem now, but if polls begin to narrow by 2024, stay-home or protest-left votes in a First Past the Post electoral system could be fatal in marginal constituencies.

The current Labour leadership wish to put as much daylight as possible between the Party now and the Corbyn years. This has meant distancing themselves from some of the more popular parts of the 2017 manifesto, including public ownership of rail, energy companies and other public services, despite most party members and the British Public favouring nationalisation in this area. Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves have said such policies do not stack up against the Party’s fiscal rules. This could create tension for a future Labour Government. Internally, the Government would be fighting both the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ left on these issues. Also, many voters, not only those who vote Labour, would become frustrated if the private companies continue to profit from a rail system that’s expensive and unreliable or an energy market that forces people into poverty.

At the same time, those on the left of Labour need to accept a few hard facts. The 2019 election defeat was a devastating loss caused in no small part by missteps, poor tactics and wrong policy calls by Corbyn, his advisors and Momentum. Also, Labour may have increased its vote considerably in 2017, but despite losing seats, the Tories also increased their overall percentage of the vote and got more votes than Labour.

Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension from the party has seen hundreds of members, including many branch chairs, have their membership also suspended for allowing motions of solidarity with Corbyn to be moved. Corbyn’s comments in response to the antisemitism report were ill-advised, but so too has been this clumsy night of the long knives against his supporters in the party. The party has suspended members or excluded them from MP selecton for sharing articles from proscribed organisations, mostly socialist. In the case of one Milton Keynes Councillor Lauren Townsend, she was blocked from standing as an MP for liking a tweet about Sturgeon testing negativeĀ for Covid-19, hardly an act of supporting a political rival. Labour also expelled filmmaker Ken Loach, maker of ‘I, Daniel Blake’, again for associating with proscribed organisations rather than actually belonging to them.

Corbyn has done himself absolutely no favours with his frankly idiotic position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, calling on the west to stop arming Ukraine and aligning with the Stop the War coalition’s position which appears more critical of NATO than Russia. This has now made it very easy for Starmer’s team to say that Corbyn will not have the whip restored. The left has now spent two years wasting energy trying to defend Corbyn and campaigning for him to get the whip restored. This absolutely plays into the hands of their opponents who now have good reason to expel leftists for not showing solidarity with Ukrainians.

Compare this to the US Democrats where Jo Biden’s former rival Bernie Sanders is now chair of the Senate Budget Committee, and a clear pact was made between the left and the moderate factions of the party to help beat Trump in 2020. Electoral politics is about building coalitions. The left in the UK needs to accept they alone do not have majority support and need to work with what they term the “soft left” and more centrist factions to win. The current Labour leadership need to ensure that the left still has a stake in Labour winning, and give enough to motivate the left to vote and campaign for Labour. In 2020 the Democrats learnt the hard lessons from 2016 when Sanders supporters were shunned by Hillary, resulting in many not supporting her campaign after the primaries and ultimately allowing Trump to win. In 2020, the Biden campaign made sure the left had a stake in a Democrat victory, and it paid off.

The fact is that to win elections, especially in a First Past the Post electoral system, a party needs to build a coalition of support. In 1997, UK Labour was able to build a coalition which in addition to the people who’d supported it throughout the Thatcher years, voters who’d supported the Thatcher project and its broad economic programme, but by the mid-1990s wanted something new, more socially liberal and slightly more moderate economically. This coalition held for three elections, but in 2010 many from this group of voters had drifted to the Lib Dems under Nick Clegg or back to the Conservatives under David Cameron who promised a more socially liberal and compassionate conservative party.

Starmer and the faction around want to build back the same coalition of voters they had in 1997. The problem is 25 years later, which included a decade of austerity, the voter demographics are more polarised and complex. The Conservative Party in 2022 has been forced to abandon Thatcher economics that Truss and Kwarteng tried to resurrect from the dead, and instead are now raising taxes, including for top income earners. The so-called centre-ground in politics is not the same as that in 1997. In fact, the term ‘centre’ is lazy political shorthand as if voters are easily categorised into ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centrists’ the latter swinging between the two and acting as king-maker. It has always been more complex than this, with people being more socially conservative on certain issues or economically liberal on others. The Brexit debate cut right across the old political divides with people across the spectrum, across class devices and cultural backgrounds being completely divided on the issue. A working-class voter in Hartlepool was not considered a swing voter until very recently, nor was an upper-middle-class voter in Kensington. Yet in the 2020s these voters will be part of the much larger ‘swing vote’ that will decide the next government.

Then there are the four nations of the United Kingdom. The majority of UK voters live in England, so inevitably this is where elections are won and lost. Historically, Labour has performed well in Scotland and Wales, with Northern Ireland having its own difficult history and different parties. Labour still performs well in Wales, having controlled the Welsh Senate since its creation in 1999. The 2021 deal between Welsh Labour and the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru has been clever in securing broad support of support within the devolved government there.

The situation in Scotland is nowhere near as rosy. Traditionally, Scotland was a Labour stronghold, yet in the 2019 election, the party won only one seat up there. The Scottish National Party (SNP) have controlled the Scottish Parliament since 2007. There was a small amount of comfort for Labour in the 2022 local council elections where Labour came second to the SNP, but still a long way behind. Even the polls showing Labour with a 33% lead over the Tories nationally, had Labour was far behind the SNP in Scotland. Whilst support for independence hovers around the 50% mark in Scotland, it is consistently higher now than during the last independence referendum in 2014. The SNP have been clever to build a coalition of former Labour left voters and Scottish nationalists including some from the centre-right. By contrast, the various deals being done by Labour with the Conservatives and Lib Dems to stop the SNP risk doing more long-term harm to Labour’s chances in left-leaning Scotland.

For Labour, the strategy to win not only the next election but to start winning more often in the UK is to win over more English voters, as over 80% of the population live there. English voters have traditionally been small ‘c’ Conservative and large the ‘C’ Conservative Party usually do well, especially in the South outside of London. A wholesale return to Corbyn’s era politics is unlikely to shift this. In the short term, Labour with more of a 1997 flavour may win the next election, but it is not 1997, and very soon voters will grow restless.

English voters might be conservative but may see the need for economic reform so more people have opportunities. They will expect serious government interventions in housing, employment, education and transport. Already we have seen a Tory Government partially renationalise the railways, increase taxes to fund social care and lift Univeral Credit (the UK’s universal benefit), things the Tories would not have considered in the 1990s. The fact is society has changed. And in politics. you need to adapt. Traditionally the Conservative Party are much better at this than Labour. Whilst the Tories will probably now lose the next election, but, the size of their loss and Labour’s win will determine how long they spend in opposition. For Labour, winning more often will require nuisance and being adaptable. Yes, learn the important lessons from 1997, but know that times are now different and so too are policies and tactics. The left may not be strong enough to win, but they are still too big a block now to ignore and are more significant than in the 1990s. Like the Biden campaign, Starmer’s team will need to give the left something that means they can at least give grudging support. In turn, the left need to accept that a few important gains are better than none at all and the great cannot continue to be the enemy of the good or even the ok-ish.

The next election could well go to Labour, or at least be lost by the Tories due to their ineptness at running the country in the last few years. Labour’s internal problems have not gone away, it is just that the Conservative Party’s internal issues are now a lot worse and unusually for them have been aired in public. The opportunity for Labour is to build a winning coalition that helps them win not just the next election, but to start winning more than they lose.

Can Rishi Sunak save the Conservative Government?

On October 25 2022 Rishi Sunak became the fifth leader of the Conservative Party since they came to power in 2010. Having lost the membership ballot in the summer, Tory MPs having seen the polls after the Mini Budget and facing the prospect of electoral annihilation, coalesced around Rishi Sunak and ensured he was the only person on the ballot. In short, MPs no longer trusted their party membership after the Liz Truss fiasco.

Following on from Party Gate, and the troubles the Conservative Party faced in 2022, Rishi Sunak will be hoping for a scandal-free year and an economy that starts to recover. It has not got off to a very good start, with Party Chair Nadhim Zahawi facing allegations of tax issues which will be investigated by the independent ethics advisor. Meanwhile, the economic outlook for Britain is weaker than expected.

When a new Prime Minister comes in and appoints a new Cabinet it is referred to as a “new government.” This wears somewhat thin when many of the “new” Cabinet Ministers have served in previous governments, many only a few weeks earlier. The likes of Michael Gove, Dominic Raab or Penny Mordant have served under previous Prime Ministers pursuing the same Conservative Party policies in Government. The Conservative Party were elected in 2019 on a Manifesto that the public expect them to implement. The accumulative issues of the last 12 years or the last 12 months have not disappeared with a change at Number 10.

25/10/2022. London, United Kingdom. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak arrives in Downing Street. Picture by Lauren Hurley / No 10 Downing Street

The Truss libertarian experiment, described by Paul Goodman editor at Conservative Home as the economic experiment, which blew the roof off the chemistry lab. The Conservatives, having learnt in 2017 that policies of austerity are electoral Kryptonite, now face the reality that small government libertarian policies much craved by many tory members, simply will not work. Sunak inherits a party bereft of ideas and vision and is now forced to increase taxes to pay down public debt and fund public services such as the NHS. Promises made in 2019 to cut taxes would have been difficult to implement before the pandemic, now they simply are not possible.

The longstanding problem with British politics, as other commentators have pointed out, there is an expectation of European levels of spending on public services, but a naive view that the country can also have American levels of taxation. This is a problem not just for the Conservative Government, but for the opposition who once in government will have the choice of increasing taxes or slashing public spending. My next blog post will address this issue further.

Brexit is adding to Britain’s economic woes. In 2021 the UK faced a 14% fall in trade with the EU. The new trade agreements have not offset this, with deals like the one signed with Singapore largely mirroring Singapore’s deal with the EU meaning no gain from leaving the single market. In the case of the Australian deal, the desire to quickly conclude negotiations resulted in terms less favourable to Britain. There is no appetite from any of the main political party’s to revisit the decision to leave the European Union and to date little evidence that another referendum would see a different outcome. However, this becomes an issue of economic management with many leading Conservative politicians having boasted that having left the EU, Britain could negotiate favourable trade deals with the rest of the world. There is little prospect of a Free Trade deal with the US and the geo-political situation means deals with China are also unlikely, and in both cases, it is unlikely any deal would be favourable to Britain. The Conservatives since 2016 have talked of the opportunities of Brexit, yet have delivered few. This may not be top of voters’ priorities right now, but certainly, for many businesses, including those who have supported and donated to the Tories in the past, this is a serious problem. This is not a problem Sunak or any Conservative leader is likely to fix without going back on earlier commitments and renegotiating terms with the EU.

The Conservative Party are the natural party of Government in Britain and is the most electorally successful party in Europe. One of their great strengths is internal unity and discipline, much more so than Labour who more often than not air their dirty laundry in public. In the last 18 months, internal infighting has dominated the Conservative Party and ground the government to a halt over the summer while they elected a new leader, only for the winner to resign and be replaced by the runner-up weeks later.

Sunak’s ascent to the top job has not reduced these internal divisions at all. The below tweet from former Minister and Conservative MP Nadine Dorries recently gives some idea of the simmering tensions within parliament:

The ‘Get Brexit Done’ coalition has fallen away with many former voters and supporters feeling disillusioned with the Tories’ performance in Government. Whereas in 2019, enough voters could get behind The Conservatives over Brexit, now there are fewer policies areas where the government have an advantage over the opposition. Attempts to attack Labour regarding recent union industrial actions have not landed so far. Many feel sympathy for striking nurses and feel health workers are not paid enough. Traditionally Rail workers get a bad rap for taking strike action without explaining their position to the public very well. RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch has been much stronger than his predecessors at making a case for his members. At the same time, with inflation above 10% many have sympathy with striking workers, and many more see the problem as poor economic management by the government even if they do not like unions going on strike. The current situation feels much more like the Ted Heath Conservative Government in 1973 than the Thatcher Government taking on the Miners Union a decade later.

It will be very difficult for the Conservative Party to win the next election. Certainly were an election held today the government will lose. But this is why there will be no election in 2023. In the best-case scenario, the economic situation is unlikely to improve until early 2024. Further to this, Sunak will want as much distance as possible from the Kwarteng Mini Budget, and this will take time. As well as an improved economy, the Tories will need to restore party unity both within their MPs and the broader party membership – who didn’t vote for Sunak.

A wedge issue, like Brexit, was in 2019, could help the Conservatives, but it is unclear what this would be. After 12 years in power, it is difficult to talk about ‘fixing the asylum system’ without it begging the question why haven’t you done so already? Slogans like a coalition of chaos about Labour and the SNP may have worked in 2015, but given the last year the Tories are in no position where they can accuse others of creating chaos. Certainly the 2017 slogan of strong and stable will not work again.

Despite everything that has happened, it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the British Conservative Party which has proven time and again to be an electoral force to be reckoned with. In England, where over 80% of British voters live, Tory is the default option in many parts of the country. The polarisation within Britain is high with tensions from the Brexit debate and ongoing calls for Scottish Independence still simmering. The Tories can certainly play these divisions to their advantage in the hope of winning support.

As the next post will discuss, Labour should be able to win the next election, but it is not a certainty yet. They have their own internal issues to resolve.

The curious case of Liz Truss

The premiership of Liz Truss will be remembered for many years to come. She will be remembered as being the shortest-serving former UK prime minister (for now), resigning after seven weeks. It will be remembered that only two days after going to Balmoral to meet the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II passed away having served 70 years on the throne, making Truss her 15th and final PM. People will also remember the Truss premiership for plunging already bad Conservative Party polling numbers down to record lows, giving the opposition Labour Party an unprecedented 30% lead. But the main thing her seven weeks as Prime Minister will be remembered for – destroying the longstanding myth that the Conservative Party are good at managing the economy.

As outlined in a post earlier this year in a global economic crisis, governments, in the short term at least, are limited in what they can do to remedy the situation. However, the one thing governments can certainly do is not make the situation worse. In this Liz Truss and former Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng failed spectacularly.

The now infamous ‘mini budget’ or “Growth Plan” of 23 September 2022 caused the pound to hit an all-time low against the US dollar, and force the Bank of England to intervene to prevent chaotic drops in gilts prices from stinging pension funds and threatening financial stability. How on did the UK’s natural party of government, the party of sound money and fiscal responsibility manage to get it all so badly wrong? And so quickly?

Since 2008, as pointed out in my last blog post, right-of-centre governments have stepped back from full Thatcherite free market policies due to the fact that these policies directly resulted in the crisis of the last decade. Whilst free market and trickle-down economics may no longer be electorally viable, there remain many true believers in the small government crusade.

The decline and fall of Boris Johnson as PM was entirely of his own making and had been on the cards for some time. During the period, the disquiet within the Conservative Party was not so much over “Party-Gate” but the increase in taxes, namely National Insurance, to keep their manifesto commitment to fund social care, a policy area where previous governments have failed to grasp the nettle. Tory Party members were furious that a Conservative Government had raised taxes, and former Chancellor Rishi Sunak was in their eyes to blame. Enter Liz Truss.

Truss, on becoming Foreign Secretary in early 2022, began doing these strange photos where she was imitating former Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This Thatcher cosplay was matched by sound-bite rhetoric about free markets and individualism. This really played to the home crowd with supporters in the Tory Party claiming “in Liz we Truss.”

Warnings from former Chancellor Sunak that the programme announced by Liz Truss when running for leader would make the economic situation worse were ignored by the party membership. In Liz they Trussed, in early September she became Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister.

A decade before coming to power, a group of right-leaning Tory MPs authored a book titled Britannia Unchained, a treatise, arguing that Britain should adopt a different and radical approach to business and economics or risk “an inevitable slide into mediocrity.” These MPs belonged to the Conservative Party ‘Free Enterprise’ group and included Liz Truss and the person a decade later she was to appoint as Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng.

In a later attempt to shift the blame to former Prime Minister Liz Truss for what happened, claiming he warned her the government were moving too fast. Kwarteng has not yet apologised for his mini budget on 23 September or the catastrophic fallout. In fact, his frustration seems more with the fact that Truss ended up sacking him, not long before being forced to resign herself. The truth is, the throwing caution to the wind approach of slashing taxes, removing restrictions on banker bonuses, and slashing other regulations such as IR35 were all consistent with what he and Truss had argued in Britannia Unchained a decade earlier. And these ideas found favour with the Conservative Party membership – with the idealised view of Thatcher’s vision of small government, deregulation and low taxation. For the general public, this was not so much ‘Britannia Unchained’ as ‘Libertarians Unhinged.’

Where this mini-budget really hit the rocks, especially with the financial markets, was the unfunded tax cuts and spending increases. The Tories, having implemented austerity policies during their first term in office with the Lib Dems, found out the hard way that underfunding the Police or the NHS was simply not an option. The 2017 election where they lost their overall majority, and Corbyn’s Labour had an unexpected surge in support largely due to increased turnout by young voters, was largely due to an anti-austerity backlash. In Kwarteng’s mini-budget, the solution was that the government borrow to pay for tax cuts and spending increases. The former Chancellor argued that cutting taxes and red tape this would stimulate economic growth meaning the government would soon be able to repay the debt.

Many were surprised to see financial markets react to a right-wing Tory budget in this way. Threats of capital withdrawal and other measures are not uncommon when centre-left governments try to implement their agenda. Yet here we had a right-wing budget and the market responded badly. One issue was that Truss and Kwarteng completely ignored the Office for Budget Responsibility before preparing the mini-budget. This office was set up by former Conservative Chancellor George Osborne, in response to his claims that Labour had acted financially irresponsibly when in power. This office was designed to be a check and balance for the left, yet it was the right who fell foul of it. One of Britain’s key selling points is that is a rules-based economy. By not consulting the OBR before the mini-budget, Truss and Kwarteng damaged Britain’s brand.

Cutting taxes at a time of high inflation is not a terribly smart move as it will drive up inflation further. Borrowing money to cut taxes and increase spending is what the Government in Greece did prior to the 2008 financial crash, with devastating consequences. Add both of these to a world economy struggling in the wake of the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is no surprise that the markets reacted as they did.

Within days, Truss was forced to sack Kwarteng and announce a U-turn on the mini-budget, to much tormenting that “the lady is for turning” with reference to Margaret Thatcher’s famous quote. Within 44 days of becoming Prime Minister, Truss announced her resignation, having days earlier replaced her friend Kwazi Kwarteng with Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor and almost all measures in the mini-budget had to be reversed.

It was would easy to blame Truss and Kwarteng for this specular failure. Many have cited her shocking performances in the media as why ultimately she resigned and question how someone got to the highest level of public office when so clearly unable to perform. Leadership qualities play a significant role, and in modern politics media presentation is critical. But this was not a problem of style and presentation alone, as abysmal as this was under the Truss premiership.

The initial reaction to the Mini Budget in September was very positive from many in the Conservative Party and their cheerleaders in the tabloid media.

For Tory Party members and Daily Mail readers, this was the budget they had been waiting for. Far from being a surprise, the mini-budget was implementing not just the promises of Truss’s leadership campaign, but the wishes of many rank-and-file Conservatives. After enduring Sunak’s National Insurance increase the free market wing of the party finally had their way, at last, a true Tory budget. Never mind Britannia Unchained, this was Conservative Party unleashed.

The ‘get Brexit done/anti-Jeremy Corbyn’ coalition that won the Conservatives the 2019 election now finds itself in tatters. Not only were so-called red wall voters from the North East of England put off by the return of trickle-down economics, but polls show that large swaths of traditionally Conservative voting south of England were also in despair. Within the Conservative Party, those who still subscribed to Edmund Burke’s view that no “generation should be arrogant enough as to only think of themselves” and that borrowing for tax cuts would harm future generations, found themselves in the minority. In fact, the enduring influence of one-nation conservatism made popular by Benjamin Disraeli, of pragmatism and paternalism was replaced with an unwavering belief in small government and the market.

That Conservative MPs managed to avoid another membership ballot and Rishi Sunak replacing Liz Trus is the topic of the next blog post. Needless to say Conservative MPs, many from Constituencies once considered save tory, are now terrified by recent polls. Allowing the party membership a say risked a further dose of trickle-down right-wing economics, making the Tories unelectable for a long time. It was the party members who supported Truss, while in the first round, only 50 backed Truss for leader, though other candidates who had MP backing early on also espoused not dissimilar economic views.

Some who supported Truss may now have reflected on what happened and perhaps realise that these policies not only do not work, but electorally they are poison. But many on the right will blame it on Truss, her leadership style and the speed with which she tried to implement the reforms. In many ways, the fact that the mini-budget changes were done quickly and communicated poorly was a good thing, as it meant these policies were reversed quickly. A more media-savvy and gradual implementation would have done more harm in the long term. It is no accident that since 2008, free market trickle-down economics has been out of fashion. The Truss premiership has been a timely reminder that these policies do not work and should not be tried again.

Boris Johnson – why he fell and can he come back?

The demise of Boris Johnson’s premiership in 2022 was both a surprising political upset and entirely predictable at the same time.

It was a political upset when considering the large majority the Conservative Party won in 2019 under his leadership, the best result of any political party since Thatcher’s 1979 election victory. Yet, after months of reports about Party Gate and scandal after scandal involving both Boris Johnson and various other MPs, his eventual resignation in June 2022 became inevitable. Indeed back in February last year my blog post questioned how he was still in post and argued that his brand was damaged. Five months later, after yet another scandal involving Deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher, he was forced to resign.

It is still too soon to say how history will judge Boris Johnson, not least because there is still the possibility that he may return as Tory Leader someday. Few can deny that his ascent to the role of Conservative Party Leader and Prime Minister in 2019 profoundly impacted British politics for many years to come. In 2019 I said that one of Boris’s strengths as a politician was that he could tap into people’s hopes and fears. He would have been a formidable Leader of the Opposition, and if the Conservative Party do not win the next election this theory may be put to the test.

Yet, Boris Johnson is a deeply flawed character whose political ambition has and continues to come first. What little political or policy conviction he held was primarily about staying on brand and winning votes. This in itself is not unusual and in modern politics, one can have quite a successful career by being transactional and self-promotional.

Boris Johnson was ultimately undone by both his own character flaws and by the direction of the Conservative Party, the latter being seriously out of touch with the mood of the British public.

Plenty has already been said about Johnson’s character flaws, which were well-known long before he became Prime Minister. For those who backed him, there was plenty of evidence that things would turn out as they did. The fact is that like Johnson, his backers promoted him for short-term gain. Specifically to break the political deadlock caused by Brexit and to win an election largely on that issue. It worked.

But the fixes the Johnson leadership provided, under the guidance of Dominic Cummins and others, were largely short-term. His oven-ready Brexit deal may have won the election in 2019, but has resulted in a long-term stand-off over the Northern Ireland Protocol causing ongoing problems. The bold assertion during his resignation speech that his government had fixed social care is simply not true, with the system overwhelmed and the system still facing serious workforce shortages and lacking proper integration with the NHS.

The three years of Johnson’s premiership will be largely remembered for the Government’s management of the coronavirus pandemic. As I have addressed in earlier posts, the Government failed in its response to the pandemic. Yes, the rollout of the vaccine was a success, in no small part because this task was administered by the NHS, one of the most trusted British institutions, rather than being contracted out to businesses with close association with the Conservative Party. Examples of favourable business deals, such as those given to Dido Harding or Michelle Mone, whose companies were awarded lucrative government contracts and failed miserably in delivering have left a sour taste in voters’ mouths.

This all happened under Johnson’s watch and he was simply not fit to lead the country during this crisis. But he did not act alone. It was a failure not only of the Conservative Government but also of the British state. The crisis highlighted the country was not prepared for a pandemic, and longstanding underfunding of the NHS made this much worse.

A month before Boris Johnson’s resignation at PM, I argued that during the current time when inflation has increased globally, national governments are limited by what they can do, in the short term at least. Incumbent governments of all political persuasions have struggled in the last year, so it is not surprising that the Conservative’s polling numbers have been poor during this crisis. But in the same way that the Tories blamed Labour’s spending levels for the 2008 financial crisis, despite strong evidence that this was not the case, they cannot now claim economic problems are beyond the control of the nation-state without looking like hypocrites. Again, the short-term electoral gain in 2010 has now made a rod for their backs a decade on.

Boris Johnson is unlikely to return to any leadership role in the short term, not least because the Privileges Committee is yet to investigate party gate and his actions during the pandemic. If this investigation does not go Johnson’s way, he may face a byelection that he is not certain to win. 1922 Committee Chair Sir Graham Brady has suggested that Johnson had the numbers to run for the Tory leadership against Rishi Sunak in October 2022, though others claim Johnson made a desperate bluff talking up his support during this leadership race. Given the number of MPs who called for him to resign only weeks earlier, including the 57 ministers who resigned themselves in protest, for him to return anytime soon is unlikely and unwise.

Yet he retains core support within the Conservative Party, and with a group of Tory MPs. He also enjoys a surprising level of support still with the British public, though nowhere near the level he enjoyed in December 2019. His two months as caretaker Prime Minister in July and August 2022 during a cost of living crisis certainly did not help matters, where he partied in the Cotswalds and took holidays in Greece while many voters struggled to pay their bills. Meanwhile, the Tory Party spent the summer holding a leadership election, where, as the next post will discuss, the least competent candidate was elected by Tory members.

Boris Johnson believes that like his hero Winston Churchill, he can return to power one day. He probably believes that he fixed social care, did a good job during the pandemic and did a good job with his Brexit deal. Or he knows that if you repeat a lie often enough people start to believe it. When you have a legacy to protect and want a future in politics, you say what you need to say and do what you need to do. And the Tory Party? Would they put him in power again? If they thought it would increase their vote, yes they would. That he is not suitable or trustworthy is no matter, when the motivation is power at all costs.

Were Johnson to return as Tory Leader for the 2024 election, he would almost certainly lose. However, he may motivate a section of the Tory base and Brexit supporters, possibly mitigating the losses. On the other hand, this might spur on a wave of tactical voting by Labour, Lib-Dem and Green voters to punish the Tories for putting Johnson back after all that has happened.

It is risky to make predictions, but it is safe to assume we have not heard the last of Boris Johnson. And much like Berlusconi in Italy, the results will undoubtedly be bad both for politics and the country.