Napoleon said, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” For 18 months, Britain’s opposition Labour Party, led by Keir Starmer, masterfully followed that advice.
That is, until this week. On Wednesday, Starmer proved Bonaparte wrong, taking a step that threw the ruling Conservative Party into chaos, likely assuring his and his party’s victory in Britain’s next election.
The Story So Far
In July, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s scandal-ridden premiership finally caught up with him. He resigned amid a storm of largely self-inflicted wounds, without Starmer lifting a finger. Conservative members and politicians elected a successor to lead the party, and Liz Truss became prime minister without a general election being called.
It was immediately clear that, like Johnson, Truss would need no help destroying her own prime ministership. She launched a disastrous “mini-budget” with pledges to cut taxes (mainly for the rich), freeze energy prices and increase borrowing.
It was, for one thing, a democratic outrage: The mini-budget scrapped many of the promises the Conservatives made in their 2019 election manifesto. A new leader who had not faced the public at an election was foisting a U-turn onto the country.
The plan was also, to put it mildly, a political and economic miscalculation. The markets panicked. The pound plummeted. Mortgage prices soared. The Bank of England had to step in and purchase government debt, as it has during previous periods of financial instability.
A succession of crises followed. Truss fired her finance minister, replacing him with a centrist who instantly reversed most of the mini-budget. One of Truss’ advisers was then fired for incendiary remarks made to a journalist. Then the interior minister resigned over a technical error involving a mis-sent email, although most people think she was fired for her disagreements with Truss over immigration policy. In short, tensions unrelated to the mini-budget burst chaotically to the surface.
But the kicker came on Wednesday of this week. This was when Labour chose its moment to step out from the wings—and it was a political masterstroke.
It all boiled down to a vote on hydraulic fracturing (known as fracking). In 2019, the Conservatives won the general election with a manifesto pledge to keep in place a ban on fracking. But one of Truss’ mini-budget proposals was to lift the ban.
Labour knew that the Conservatives were deeply divided on this issue, so they forced a vote on it in Parliament. Conservative lawmakers faced a choice: They could either vote with Labour, signaling their willingness to ban fracking, and remaining faithful to their own party’s manifesto pledge. Or they could vote with Truss to scrap the ban. Oh, and this isn’t really a vote on fracking, Truss told them. You should consider this a vote of confidence in the government. Brave words from the least popular government in British history.
Truss won the vote … but Labour’s plan ultimately worked. Rumors quickly spread that senior politicians had manhandled recalcitrant colleagues to vote with the government. Conservative whips, kept out of the loop and angry with the whole process, resigned and then un-resigned in a matter of hours. Nobody trusted Truss. Yesterday afternoon she resigned, becoming the shortest-lived prime minister in British history. The Conservatives will choose her successor within seven days … and once again, the British public will have no say about who is to occupy the nation’s highest office.
What is there to say about such a shambles? Two things spring to mind.
First, Britain is being torn apart by contradictions within the Conservative Party.
Everyone will focus on the disastrous “mini-budget” that sparked her downfall. But if the Conservative Party was not in such a poor state already, much of this chaos would have been avoided.
Looking at the Conservatives today it might be hard to believe, but the Tories are the most successful political party in world history. For almost 200 years they have tapped into Britain’s (read: England’s) latent resistance to radical change. They have spent a combined 47 years in power since World War II, sometimes by adapting to change (Winston Churchill accepting the creation of the post-war welfare state) and sometimes by forcing change (Margaret Thatcher’s radical free market policies in the 1980s).
This flexibility, however, means that there are numerous competing definitions within the party of what “Conservatism” means. For instance, there are sizable numbers of liberal free market globalists and communitarian nationalists within the Conservatives’ big tent. Sometimes, these strands come together in new combinations: The Truss government’s comparative economic liberalism sat alongside a socially conservative (some would say authoritarian) attitude toward immigration.
The fact that diversity of opinion exists within the same party is not necessarily a bad thing. I once heard a Conservative politician argue that a two-party system is good because it forces each political party to become a “coalition” of different views. Diversity leads to balance: It prevents any one faction from dominating and moving the party too far in one direction and orients our politics toward the center ground.
Except, increasingly, it doesn’t. Since Brexit, the Conservatives just haven’t known what they are for. Are they free-marketeers? Are they social welfarists who want to cut immigration? I don’t worry about this incoherency because I’m a Conservative (I certainly am not). I worry about it because short-termism, personality politics and downright incompetence have rushed to fill the void. And everyone is suffering.
This is the context in which Truss rose to power. She touted Brexit’s opportunities despite having voted to remain in the EU. She promised to return the Conservatives to their “true” roots of low taxation and free enterprise, despite her predecessor having won, and won big, on a manifesto of intervention in the economy. In the end, she couldn’t control the contradictions, couldn’t put forward a coherent vision that had the support of her party or the country. As one Conservative MP put it: “The parliamentary party has proved itself to be ungovernable.”
Much of the carnage, of course, has to do with Truss’ own failings as a leader. Yet it’s also clear that her fall was much more than a consequence of one disastrous budget. It was a symptom of how incoherent and floundering the modern Conservative Party has become. Her predecessor, the clownish Boris Johnson, was well known for his gaffes and his frequent changes of heart. The days of comparative coherency under David Cameron are long gone.
Britain Needs Fundamental Reform
The easiest solution to Britain’s woes is simply to wait until the next general election. The public has turned against the Conservatives, and its days in power likely are numbered. A prolonged period in opposition will force it to get its act together.
While this is true, it isn’t enough. We need to deal with the underlying structural conditions that made the system so susceptible to this destructive behavior in the first place.
For one, we cannot have a system where the membership of one political party gets to pick the prime minister. We need to adopt codified rules to govern our institutions, which are too often guided by tradition. It’s simple: When a prime minister falls, the government should be required to call a new election. There should be no imposing a disastrous set of policies on the public by fiat. This is especially true in the context of a cost-of-living crisis, when the public desperately needs the government that it believes in to competently address the country’s problems. And the only way the public will believe in a new government is if it elects that government.
Second, we cannot have a system where two parties switch in and out of power every few years. We need proportional representation rather than the first-past-the-post system that currently prevails and allows a party to routinely claim a mandate with little more than 35% or 40% of the vote. The diversity that uneasily coexists within the two parties will be more healthily manifested externally in a number of mutually competitive smaller parties. Coalition-building will become the norm, like it is in most of the rest of Europe. This won’t end political strife, of course. But it will prevent the British public becoming a captive audience, chained to the same two parties and their recurring flaws—especially pronounced in the current Conservatives—forever.
Will any of this happen? Probably not. The idea that such reform would come from the Tories is laughable. Meanwhile Keir Starmer—like every Labour leader before him—is inexplicably reluctant to reform Britain’s moribund system, especially when it is probably about to put him in power.
If the Conservatives lose the next election, it will, in one sense, be a new chapter in British politics. But the reality is that the structural-level flaws that made Britain so susceptible to Truss’ carnage will remain, regardless of which of the two parties is in power.