Ever bold, always cocky and never a mission accomplished: this will be the tale of PM Truss
Most political plans go wrong either because unforeseen events get in the way or because wholly foreseeable events were ignored in the planning. Liz Truss’s ambitions for a policy blitz in her first weeks as prime minister belong in the first category. She couldn’t have known the Queen would die, and politics would be suspended for national mourning.The prime minister’s admission on Monday night, en route to New York, that there will be no UK-US free trade deal is the second kind of failure. The scale of it must not be downplayed just because it feels inevitable.
When Truss was international trade secretary, a free-trade agreement with Washington was very much Plan A. It was to be the crowning glory of Britain’s triumphant liberation from Brussels: an apotheosis of economic sovereignty and transatlantic solidarity. In Eurosceptic mythology, the Washington deal was a bridge to utopia, and the slam-dunk rebuttal to all those gloomy remoaner economists who fretted over the cost of leaving the EU single market.Now Truss admits that there aren’t even any negotiations. This isn’t a surprise to anyone who has listened to what US diplomats and trade experts have been saying for years.Americans need compelling commercial incentives to open their markets up to foreigners. They aren’t going to do it as a favour for Truss, no matter how “special” the relationship with Britain. Also, the UK’s petulant unilateral abrogations of the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit agreement have advertised the country as a vandal of international law and a flaky trading partner. Truss does not seem perturbed by the sinking of the Brexit trade flagship because she has long since moved on to a new plan. It will be presented to the Commons by the chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, on Friday.
This “fiscal event” is a mini-budget, but without such fussy formalities as official forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). The OBR wasn’t invited to run the numbers. As an institution it falls under the same suspicion as the Treasury in the eyes of the new regime. Both are bastions of the old economic thinking: the bean-counting reflexes that caused such wearisome affection for functional European relations; the “orthodoxy” that Truss has made it her explicit mission to purge.That reset began with the dismissal of Tom Scholar, the Treasury permanent secretary, on Kwarteng’s first day in the building. It was an act of revolutionary zeal that caused alarm among all the Whitehall fusspots and technocratic hand-wringers that radical Tories of the Brexit era like to see riled. It was a symbolic erasure of institutional memory by a prime minister and a chancellor who think there is nothing the past can teach them that they don’t already know.
Friday is Day One, Year One in the new age of economic growth. The theory is that all previous governments have fretted too much about the distribution of wealth to take the bold measures needed to generate the stuff in the first place.
The furnaces of economic locomotion will be stoked with tax cuts. Any revenue shortfall will be borrowed, as will the tens of billions that have been pledged to cap the cost of energy bills through a winter fuel crisis. That is just part one of The Plan. Part two is where the wheels of growth are freed to spin without regulatory impediment. The thickets of red tape and brambles of bureaucracy that seem to have haunted the nightmares of backbench Tory MPs for decades will at long last be slashed and burned.First on the bonfire: the cap on bankers’ bonuses. In Trussite doctrine, this rebuke to City greed is a pointless bit of anti-aspirational gesture politics that red-blooded, pro-enterprise Conservatives should never have indulged. More lubricants to freewheeling finance are also planned.Spraying money on people who already have it sounds like a weird move in straitened times, but that is part of The Plan. Truss is braced for the political pain that comes with unpopular decisions. She wears it as a badge of her Thatcheresque resolve. She expects an electoral reward when the growth dividend comes in and her foresight is vindicated. It hurt, but it worked, she will say as Britain roars into 2024, an election and a fifth consecutive term of Tory government.For The Plan to work, a number of things must not go wrong. Financial markets must not be spooked by the government writing blank cheques and waving its hand dismissively at the national debt. The energy crisis must not drag on to the point where the government cannot afford to subsidise households and businesses any more, and starts clawing money back from people who are in no condition to pay. Jacob Rees-Mogg, as energy secretary, will have to break the bad news to people without coming across as a patronising toff who has never wanted for anything in his life.Fiscal incontinence must not leak out as even higher inflation. A distressed public must not lose patience through a ruinous winter and not place any more demands on a health service that is already struggling to cope with a mild autumn.Scores of Tory MPs who never backed Truss for the leadership must not worry about sliding opinion polls, nor rebel in votes on things their irate constituents care about. Hardline Brexiters will have to bite their lips and not complain about the inevitable compromises required to keep trade moving with the EU. The proceeds of any economic growth stimulated by The Plan must not appear to fatten the usual corporate cats at the expense of everyone else. People in former Labour heartlands who loaned their votes to Boris Johnson in 2019 must not find cause to remember their old animus towards the Tories. Truss will have to avoid sounding callous and aloof while explaining that people’s immiseration is for their own good. And those are just the visible hazards, not taking into account the routine barrage of unforeseeable events.Truss is not afraid of a tactical retreat. She reached her signature energy policy by way of a U-turn, having originally said there would be “no handouts”. There was a plan, but that had to change. Now there is a new plan. It will also change. I suspect this will be the theme of her time in Downing Street: supreme confidence attaching itself to objects of impermanence; an arrogance with power that styles itself as visionary while stumbling on the obstacles everyone could see coming; always a bold plan, never a mission accomplished. Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist
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