Lesson of memoir? How not to choose your leader - GulfToday

Lesson of memoir? How not to choose your leader

Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. File

John Rentoul, The Independent

Liz Truss had already discredited herself with her rambling about the “deep state” conspiring against her as prime minister. The first extracts from her book seem to be just as embarrassing.

She describes a car journey with Kwasi Kwarteng, her chancellor, after his mini-Budget in which he cut taxes and increased borrowing: “Kwasi was grinning from ear to ear. As for me, I was ecstatic — we’d done it!”

At this point, the narrative turns dramatic: “Looking back, that afternoon was probably my happiest moment as prime minister. Little did I know the establishment was about to use every tool at its disposal to fight back.”  This is where her story goes wrong. Did it not occur to her that the markets might react badly to unfunded tax cuts? She had been warned but presumably dismissed the warnings because she thought the markets would be wrong to react that way.  She knew that “the establishment” would be opposed to her because she said so during the leadership campaign, and yet she appeared to have given no thought to how to overcome that opposition, or to what to do if the markets did behave in the way that “Treasury orthodoxy” predicted that they would.

Nor is her memoir, entitled Ten Years to Save the West — a curious timetable, taking us to 2034 — much use for the historical record. She accuses Rishi Sunak of wanting to be prime minister, says Boris Johnson was “frequently ill-advised by those around him”, and that she “discovered”, as a cabinet minister loyally not plotting a leadership bid, “a growing culture of leaks”.  Yet we should not ignore her account, however self-serving and conspiracy-minded it might be. Not least because it is important to learn how someone so unsuited to the job became prime minister.

The lesson is a simple one. Conservative MPs knew that she was not the right person for the job, but she was able to sell a “fairytale” to the party members who had the final say. The most important fact of her 49-day premiership, the Grade I Listed information that ought to be preserved for posterity, is that she was the first prime minister chosen by party members against the wishes of MPs.

Previous party leaders had been imposed by members on their MPs, but only in opposition: Iain Duncan Smith in 2001 and Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. Corbyn came close to becoming prime minister after the 2017 election — much closer than people realise, although we never found out how many Labour MPs such as Margaret Hodge, Phil Wilson and John Woodcock would have voted to keep Theresa May as prime minister instead.

But only Truss was actually put in 10 Downing Street by people outside parliament. If it had been a matter for Conservative MPs alone, Sunak would have become prime minister 49 days earlier than he did — and the Tory party’s reputation for managing the economy would be better than it is now.

This is strenuously denied by Sunak’s detractors, who claim that the lion’s share of Penny Mordaunt’s supporters would have transferred to Truss if there had been a further ballot of MPs. I disagree. The only reason several of Mordaunt’s supporters later declared for Truss is that they thought, from opinion polls of party members, that she was going to win.

Truss therefore became the bomb whose fuse had been lit 41 years earlier, when one of the two main parties first took the choice of party leader out of the exclusive hands of its MPs. Labour created an electoral college of trade unions, MPs and local parties in 1981 as a way for Tony Benn to win the leadership, a reform dishonestly promoted as “democratization.”

William Hague pursued a similar path in 1998, giving Tory members the choice between the final two candidates, in order to defend himself against a challenge from Michael Portillo.

Those changes breached the fundamental principle of parliamentary democracy, which is that the prime minister is the person who can command the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons. As soon as a party leader is chosen by people outside parliament, the potential for a conflicted mandate arises.

Worse than that, it means that the wrong person might be chosen. MPs know the strengths and limitations of their colleagues, who they see in the chamber, at the despatch box and in person.

For many decades, it didn’t matter. Benn never became Labour leader, and Portillo missed the chance to lead the Tories by one vote in 2001. Neither Duncan Smith nor Corbyn became prime minister, and those who did either skipped the membership stage (Gordon Brown, Theresa May and Rishi Sunak) or would have won among MPs as well as members (Boris Johnson).

Related articles