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Analysis | After Kwarteng, Tories are reaching for an era after the truss

Five weeks ago, the world watched in awe as Britain bid farewell to Elizabeth II and welcomed Charles III with impeccable splendor. Today, it watches in amazement as the government falls to pieces and the British economy spirals into convulsions. “Oh dear, oh dear,” the king was heard muttering as he met Prime Minister Liz Truss for the first of their routine weekly meetings.

The political situation is both depressing and surreal. Finance Minister Kwasi Kwarteng flew back from a meeting of the world’s most powerful financiers to be fired after just 38 days in office. The Secretary of State, James Cleverly, said unsolicited in a radio interview that “changing leadership would be a disastrously bad idea, not only politically but economically as well.”

Cabinet-level Tory MPs are embroiled in a frenzy of conspiracy, as opinion polls show MPs losing to Labour by a 20,000 majority. A Tory insider said it was the worst crisis he had seen in his life, then stated that only the confrontation with Egypt over Suez in 1956 or even May 1940 during World War II could be compared: a government trying to survive. with its defining policy in tatters. “At least we had Churchill in 1940,” the insider said.

Here is an example of what MPs have been telling the newspapers in recent days. The mood at a 1922 Committee meeting on Wednesday, where Truss tried to justify her policies to stragglers, was “funeral” and “unspeakably gloomy.” Expecting Truss and Kwarteng to resolve the situation “is a bit like asking the gas engineer who just blew up your house to come back and try again.” ‘I don’t see how there is a way back for her. Her entire economic policy has fallen to pieces.” “We all suffer from depression and anxiety. We’re trying to figure out what to do.”

Truss’ decision to sacrifice her chancellor and tear up a large chunk of his mini-budget could buy her some time — and restore some stability to the market. But it begs another question: If Kwarteng can go, why can’t Truss? Truss’s only point as a politician is that she is a radical reformer who wants to shock a sclerotic system into growth; take that away, and she is nothing but an empty vessel, in office but not in power. No one turns to Truss if they’re looking for oratorical genius, human empathy, organizational skills, or popularity. A new poll by Redfield & Wilton Strategies has her approval rating at minus 48, the lowest they’ve ever recorded for a prime minister.

It would, of course, seem absurd to fire a sitting prime minister just weeks after her appointment. Britain would make Italy look stable by comparison. Changing the pilot would also mean changing the roster rules, as no one is in the mood for another long drawn out leadership contest involving members of the Tory party. Tories are increasingly convinced that absurdity is better than oblivion, with various options openly discussed in the bars and corridors of Westminster.

One suggestion is to replace Truss with a neutral grandee, just as the party replaced the hapless Ian Duncan Smith with Michael Howard in 2003. Sajid Javid and Kit Malthouse are names that are often mentioned. Few outside the conservative village have heard of Malthouse, and the public would be stunned to see him suddenly thrust upon them as interim prime minister.

A second is to replace Truss with Rishi Sunak, who defeated her among MPs and was clearly right in warning party members that Trussonomics would lead to disaster. But this can be seen as a partisan move at a time when the party needs unity.

The third option gaining traction is to have a joint ticket between Sunak and Penny Mordaunt, who together got three-quarters of the vote from the Tory MPs. Mordaunt, a popular figure among party members, has a knack for reaching out to Tories workers who are particularly alienated by Truss’ enthusiasm for lowering taxes and shrinking the state.

The mood is so feverish that it is almost impossible to predict what will happen. But three things are clear from the turmoil and trauma of the past week.

The first is that the Conservative Party needs to reform the way it selects leaders. A majority of MPs voted for Sunak, a veteran former chancellor who knew Truss was playing with fire. Truss got the job only because she appealed to the Tory Party’s 172,000 members, who have neither the numbers to lend democratic legitimacy to their decision nor the knowledge to make an informed choice. The way to give party members decision-making power at a time when membership is becoming a hobby for fanatics and eccentrics has doomed the Labor Party to Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. Now it has doomed Conservatives to Truss in 2022. The choice of leaders must be limited to MPs.

The second is that regardless of its impact on the British economy, Brexit has been a disaster for British politics. It robbed the Tories of talent when Remainers were frozen out of the party or left in horror. This is at a time when the political system is barely oversupplied with talented people. It encouraged a reckless and domineering attitude among Brexiteers. And it gave the party confused instructions. Brexiteers were divided into two camps united only by their hatred of Brussels: traditionalists who wanted to return to the good old days by “taking back control” from foreign bureaucrats and global markets; and radical free marketers seeking to unleash the power of creative destruction.

Whatever his mistakes, Boris Johnson at least tried to reconcile these contradictions. Even if Truss hadn’t so unsophisticatedly opted for “creative destruction” as to alienate markets, she would have antagonized much of her own party who thought Brexit meant something very different from hers.

The third is that the Labor Party is now a waiting government rather than a struggling opposition. Keir Starmer and his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, are inundated with offers for shrimp cocktails in town. Middle-of-the-road voters celebrate Starmer’s dull normality, with his promise of competence and stability. It is often said that governments lose elections instead of the opposition winning them. But no one in Labor high command expected the Tory party – an organization with a reputation for being the most ruthless political machine in the Western world – to hold the next election, to be called within the next two years, in such a spectacular way. way would lose.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

We are witnessing the erosion of the Tory party: Adrian Wooldridge

Liz Truss faces four traps of her own making: Therese Raphael

How the BOE Got Away With Ending the Retirement Rescue: Marcus Ashworth

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at The Economist, he is the most recent author of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.”

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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