British Conservatives Need to Get a Grip

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II “kept calm and carried on” for 70 years on the throne. The last prime minister she appointed, Liz Truss, lasted just 45 days before she announced her resignation on Thursday. The contrast could not be more stark. 

And yet this is not so much a crisis of the British political system as it is one of the leadership of the governing Conservative Party. Conservatives cannot agree on who should be running the country, and that ambivalence threatens both their grip on power and the country’s ability to weather a major fiscal and economic storm.

Truss clearly did not handle the premiership adeptly, but her cardinal sin, in the eyes of many Britons and more than a few Conservative insiders, was to advance an agenda of tax cuts at a time when Britain faces large deficits, a faltering economy, and high inflation. The markets demurred, the Bank of England tut-tutted, a storm of media criticism bloomed, and Truss herself reversed course. Once she had shown weakness, the knives immediately came out for her, and she was finished.

While the wisdom of tax cuts in the current adverse economic climate can be questioned, the fact is that the opprobrium that has been showered upon Liz Truss is totally out of proportion to the scale of her “mistake.” Britain faces huge structural economic and fiscal challenges, as does the United States, as we all know, and 99.9 percent of these challenges aren’t Liz Truss’ fault (most of them aren’t Joe Biden’s fault either, for that matter). 

Moreover, in trying to deliver tax cuts, Truss was merely attempting to honor the pledges she had made to the Conservative Party members who chose her to lead them. Last time I checked, we call that “democracy.” 

What’s more, the hypocrisy of the financial elite here is breathtaking. We’re supposed to believe that trillions in wasteful government spending and borrowing was justified by (gasp!) COVID-19, but, now that we’re facing recession because of this unprecedented profligacy, modest tax cuts will break the bank? Please!

The lesson here (for Americans as well as Britons) is simple: at some stage, the Conservatives are going to have to “man up” and stop eating their own. The mainstream media will happily pick off Conservative members of Parliament one by one, and frankly no one is going to have an easy time of it in this economic and political climate. That means that the least the Conservative Party can do is . . . get a grip and support its own titular leader. Without internal unity, the party is doomed in the next general election. Even with their own house in order, they face a formidable challenge, as the opposition has surged to a large lead in the polls.

Here in the United States, it sure looks like we’re about to provide our British cousins with a vivid demonstration of how precarious the position of incumbents is, as the economic skies start to darken. British Conservatives had better learn their lesson fast, or there may be no Conservative Party left to contest the next election. It’s already looking more like a dysfunctional rabble than a governing class.

About Nicholas L. Waddy

Nicholas L. Waddy, an associate professor of history at SUNY Alfred, blogs at www.waddyisright.com.

Photo: Rob Pinney/Getty Images

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