The United Kingdom gets a new prime minister this afternoon. As expected, foreign secretary Liz Truss was victorious in the Conservative Party’s leadership election, finishing on 57.4% and beating former chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak by about 21,000 votes: clear, but less overwhelming than had been expected. She will replace Boris Johnson, who has been serving in a caretaker capacity since he announced his resignation on 7 July.
As we noted a month ago, Truss presents herself as a Thatcherite, but her whole campaign has been a rejection of the Thatcherite position that getting the economics right is more important than picking fights on social issues. Instead she has played up her culture-war credentials, and particularly pitched herself to the supporters of Brexit – in a neat reversal of the positions that she and Sunak actually took in the 2016 referendum.
I was a supporter of Margaret Thatcher from the start, although I disagreed with some of her positions, and particularly her late-blooming anti-Europeanism. My view is that she wouldn’t have been seen dead with the likes of Truss. It’s symptomatic of the Conservatives’ problems that its Thatcher nostalgia has taken the form of trying to rekindle her worst features rather than either her successes or her fundamental political attitude.
What most defined Thatcher was that she was a moderniser: she aimed to shake up Britain and drag its institutions out of their comfort zone. The Tory membership seems to have the opposite attitude: it wants to bury its collective head in the sand. Left to themselves, the members would have stuck with Boris Johnson rather than either of the candidate replacements.
Which brings us to the question of Truss’s future. Martin Kettle had a very interesting piece in the Guardian last month arguing that she would lack the clear mandate that her predecessors had and may therefore decide to take the risk of an early election. She is, he says, “a prime minister of a new kind, since her mandate to lead comes from the extra-parliamentary party membership and not from parliament itself.”
Both of Britain’s major parties now elect their leaders by a ballot of members rather than, as in the past, a vote by their MPs. As Kettle explains, Truss is not the first to rise to the prime ministership by this method: Gordon Brown, Theresa May and Johnson himself all did the same. But all of them were clearly supported by the majority of MPs as well as party members. Truss, however, trailed Sunak in the final round of voting by MPs, 137 to 113 (with another 105 for Penny Mordaunt, who was eliminated).
I’m not as impressed as Kettle is by the difference that this makes. The MPs weren’t choosing a leader, they were choosing who to send to the members’ ballot, and in any case we don’t know where Mordaunt’s votes would have gone if they’d had to choose between Sunak and Truss.* There’s nothing to suggest that Truss is actively opposed by the majority of her MPs, in the way that, say, Jeremy Corbyn was when he was Labour leader.
Nonetheless, it’s quite true that election by party members represents an important constitutional shift: in Kettle’s words, it “reshapes the institutional balances” within the system. Representative government as we know it evolved from a delicate balance between monarch, parliament and electorate; now an additional player has been given a hand, one whose qualifications for the role are less than obvious.
Truss seems unlikely to have major conflicts with her parliamentary colleagues – indeed, she is probably better placed in that regard than Johnson was. But if present arrangements continue, one day there will be a prime minister who is as badly out of sync with their MPs as Corbyn was, and it is not at all clear how the system will cope with that.
* The fact that Truss’s winning margin was narrower than expected raises tantalising questions about that final round of parliamentary voting. Could Sunak’s supporters have played it differently? On the one hand, it justifies their belief that Truss was the weaker opponent, and therefore in the importance of knocking out Mordaunt. On the other hand, it increases the likelihood that Mordaunt would have beaten her if Sunak had dropped out.