Ideology is not currently in fashion in the Conservative Party. After all, Boris Johnson was elected primarily on the deeply pragmatic ‘Get Brexit Done’ promise, and his call was distinctly and deliberately non-partisan. This thing has happened, he told the electorate, so let’s make the most of it and stop the endless bickering (in Theresa May’s time). December 2019 showed what a powerful engagement it is.
We have had post-ideological prime ministers before. Tony Blair made a virtue of avoiding dogmas and promising results, and voters generously rewarded him for it. New Labor was, he cried, the political arm of the British people. Thus, in a way, the current Prime Minister has not defined himself by normal political measures of the left or the right, of the big state or of the small government. He was faced with the enormity of the Covid-19 pandemic just months after his big general election victory, and so he focused on ‘what worked’, from holidays and largesse from the Treasury to lockdowns and restrictions on civil liberties.
Earlier this week, some of its MPs backed down. Although Johnson has secured support in the House of Commons for further restrictive measures to combat the omicron variant of Covid, there have been significant rebellions against the government. 100 Conservative MPs voted against the introduction of vaccine “passports” (actually a requirement to show vaccination status or a negative lateral flow test), while some also opposed measures to encourage working from home and to make the wearing of face coverings compulsory in certain public spaces.
Windows cannot be opened to the souls of men, but there was a common thread running through many of the rebel arguments that these measures were too restrictive, not supported by the known threat of the omicron variant, disproportionate and, more fundamentally, hostile to the way of life we are familiar with. Marcus Fysh, MP for Yeovil, argued that we are not “a ‘papers, please’ society,” and, while his comparison to Nazi Germany was awkward, his baseline was resonated with many.
Only history will decide if it was a coincidence that in this maelstrom floated an imposing and carefully laid Christmas card image by Liz Truss. The Minister of Foreign Affairs is depicted seated, flanked by an antique globe and a Union flag, the grandiose surroundings of King Charles Street are tastefully glimpsed in the background. Its effect on the commentary was electrifying: it was, everyone was sure, the portrait of a prime minister in waiting.
Liz Truss has come a long way in a short time. From the embarrassing deadlock in environment, food and rural affairs to a slump as Britain’s first female Lord Chancellor, she was a leading international trade secretary, generating money energy and positive titles when the cabinet in general was anonymous and moribund, and she was richly rewarded with one of the great offices of state.
Along the way, she gently trimmed this way and the other to create her appeal. She believes in the free market and in government having a more limited role in people’s lives. Lowering taxes is part of her brand, and when she was number two in the Treasury she gave important speeches emphasizing individual freedom and deregulation. She even named her daughter Liberty.
So it doesn’t take much to imagine that the Covid rebels, unhappy with the state’s disproportionate power and angered by restrictions on personal freedom, could provide a framework for a candidacy for the leadership of Truss, if the post the highest became vacant. We could sketch not a manifesto but a few broad lines: low taxes, free market, small government. There are 361 Conservative MPs; the support of 100 of them would be quite a blow to an ambitious minister.
Of course, as ministers and the like repeat like nodding dogs, there is no vacancy. Boris Johnson is at bay, but he’s a politician of supernatural resilience, and he could bounce back. But he’s 11 years older than his foreign secretary and, as Francis Urquhart wolfishly told audiences at the start of House of Cards, “Nothing lasts forever. Even the longest and brightest reign must end someday.
There is no vacant position. Again. But ultimately there must be. It could reasonably be said that Elizabeth Mary Truss can already perceive where some of the battle lines can be drawn, and where forces will be concentrated. Maybe she drew these lines herself.