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Boris Johnson’s allergy to the truth could be a winning strategy for Liz Truss | Raphael Behr




Jhe Conservative leadership race is a three-way battle. Rishi Sunak is campaigning against Liz Truss and Liz Truss is campaigning against gravity. The pitch of the former chancellors is to renew a party weighed down by 12 years of power. The Minister of Foreign Affairs claims that these years are a burden on another party. It offers the fantasy of regime change.

It is a difference in behavior more than a policy. Sunak plays in the serious managerial style of a minister holding a line in a broadcast interview. Trusss vibe is an opposition MP speaking at a side event at the party conference. The Minister of Foreign Affairs does not even pretend to be in the business of a serious government, which, to be fair, is not the case. She’s playing by Boris Johnson’s rules in a game that has never been won seriously.

According to this manual, a leader can announce a half-baked policy one day and, in the event of a backlash, cancel it the next. On Monday, Truss proposed a war on Whitehall trash. Then Tory MPs who read the fine print complained that the proposal meant a cut in salaries for teachers and nurses outside London. On Tuesday, Truss denied ever having such a policy.

Johnsonism is the technique of saying things to seduce one’s audience without worrying about how they will be heard later. At an election rally on Monday, Truss was applauded for saying her approach to Nicola Sturgeon would be to ignore her as an attention seeker. The implication is that Sturgeons’ referendum demands are a tantrum and that the British Prime Minister is the adult in the relationship. No sympathy for Scottish nationalism is needed to see how damaging this is to the Unionist cause. This stirs up the exact grievance Sturgeon needs to drum up support for a second referendum in the absence of momentum for independence. In case anyone thinks things will ever change in Westminster, here is the same English Tory arrogance as far as the eye can see.

It’s hard to get another perspective when the mechanism for selecting a prime minister is a competition to satisfy the ideological fetishes of conservative activists. It is even harder when the incumbent leader’s shortcomings take him away from competence; the allergy to the truth is forgotten so quickly that the favorite to succeed him is the one who mourns his departure.

Truss’s leadership status is uncertain. But he is backed by opinion polls and a rush of opportunistic MPs to back the candidate they think will win. If this bet pays off, the foreign ministers’ anti-gravity platform will be the reason. She denounces a failing economy and pledges to break with the prevailing orthodoxy as if these things were the property of a government other than the one in which she serves. She seems to think that Britain has been badly governed for as long as anyone can remember, but also that Johnson has been an excellent prime minister; maybe not blameless, but not to be reproached by her.

It would be an absurd plan, defying all political logic, were it not for the recent precedent of a Conservative Prime Minister taking over from another Conservative Prime Minister and successfully pretending they had nothing in common. When Johnson replaced Theresa May, he presented his predecessor as a relic of old politics. She was the last governor of Remainia, a country that was abolished by the Brexit revolution. Mays’ time in office was written off along with the previous six years when David Cameron had been prime minister.

This was possible because Brexit marked an era. There was a seismic scale to Johnson’s landslide election victory that lent credence to his claim that a new era had begun. Then the pandemic hit and everything that had once seemed normal was swept away into an even more distant past.

These conditions will not apply in September 2022. The part of Brexit that is being done has failed and there is no mass clamor for the parties that the Tory Party wants to do harder to purge legacy European regulations; fight Brussels for Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, prices are rising, real wages are falling, and the health service is collapsing. The prime minister will be new to the job but not to the country. The government will feel old. Gravity can be suspended during a leadership race. He rarely stays away for long in Downing Street.

From the perspective of conservative members, there is an obvious appeal in claiming that nothing that happened before is irrelevant to what may come next. Sunak barely attacks his party with harsh truths, but there’s something about his total candidacy that feels like a spoiler hand on the holiday glass while Truss uncorks another bottle.

It must also be difficult for voters in this particular contest to remember that they represent only a tiny fraction of the actual electorate. They all know this in theory, but in practice, when the Conservatives have been in power for so long, when they were in power most often in the 20th century, when they have already dominated this century despite a length of ahead of Labour, it is easy to imagine that as a general rule British politics is English and English politics is Tory.

Even in those feverish, convulsive years following the 2016 referendum, when the country was rocked by a supposedly anti-establishment revolution, the most established party on earth somehow landed in government. With this record of revisionist chutzpah, it’s easy to see why Truss thinks she can wipe the slate clean. Declare the first year of the Trussian era.

And maybe she can. The same complacency that makes some conservatives believe they are entitled to perpetual power infects the opposition with a neurotic fear that this is true. I detect a change in Labors’ mood, going from glee at the prospect of confronting the crazed, gaffe-prone Truss to distrust. Blunders are only a handicap if the candidate is embarrassed by them. The cracks can give the pot a valuable ring of authenticity in an election campaign.

There is still every reason to think that gravity will win the undeclared next round of the Tory leadership race. But the perverse state of British politics is such that Truss is perhaps best placed to confront this challenger by adamantly refusing to accept his existence.




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