For his recent book on the role of the British prime minister, contemporary historian Anthony Seldon chose the title: The Impossible Office?
Liz Truss will soon find out just how impossible the office can be as she walks across the threshold and into No.10. Her first task, as she takes on the role from Boris Johnson after a summer of concerns about a zombie government must be to present a clean and fresh appearance of governing competence.
Strategic stability must be the core objective of Truss’s first 100 days. This should be demonstrated almost immediately through an emergency budget, where fiscal generosity to help the public manage the crippling cost of living crisis would essentially buy Truss some political breathing space.
A clear vision and a united cabinet are urgently needed but, most of all, Truss needs to commit to a laser-like focus on the delivery of public services. In fact, just as “education, education, education” became the rallying cry of New Labour so might “delivery, delivery, delivery” emerge as a Truss-led call to arms.
The years since Johnson came to office in 2019 have been high on drama but almost devoid of delivery. Aside from the obvious benefits to the public, therefore, a focus on delivery and detail would also place a sea-sized body of blue water between Truss and the great mass of blond ambition that preceded her.
Eyes on the election ahead
Meanwhile, the general election clock is ticking. A vote must be held by the end of January 2025, and Truss’s strategy for the approaching contest will provide the glue that holds everything else together. Early May 2024 is the most likely date for the election and Truss will be viewing absolutely every decision and investment through a crude and clear focus on electoral returns.
From battles with the Bank of England to banishing EU bureaucracy through to continuing to cope with COVID, addressing the NHS backlog and pushing productivity, the list of decisions to be made is long.
That’s before you even get to handling the territorial tensions in an increasingly dis-United Kingdom, rebuilding public trust in politics (and therefore in politicians), managing a mental health crisis, sorting out social care, helping Ukraine and rebuilding the nation’s reputation as a serious global player.
This is where the perception of governing competence and strategic stability are likely to be crucial – and where longstanding concerns about the Labour party’s fiscal competence most viciously exploited.
The challenge for Truss, however, is that she made a great show of appealing to the Conservative party in crystal clear Thatcherite tones in order to win the leadership contest. This strategy may well have gone down well in the Tory shires but very few people beyond the most loyal party members view her economic ideas as amounting to an ideal approach to the unfolding crisis.
Having played to the right in such straight-talking terms, the question is really whether Truss has the chameleon qualities now needed to connect across a much broader cross-section of the British public.
To manage such a range of arguably intractable policy challenges while promoting an image of strategic stability and pivoting politically, to embrace a far wider section of the British public might, at first glance, be seen as mission impossible.
But the great beauty of democratic politics is that sometimes it does respond to daunting challenges. Notwithstanding the mess and the noise, the grating and the grinding, options do emerge, compromises can be reached, new relationships forged and innovative solutions found.
Gone but not forgotten …
And yet when it comes to promoting an image of strategic stability and addressing the almost wave-upon-wave of crisis that seem to be crashing down on British politics the biggest challenge facing Liz Truss and a new government is likely to exist within the party.
The biggest disruptive force that Truss must somehow learn how to handle is likely to be Boris Johnson.
He is the one person with the capacity, instinct and arguably incentive to cause disruptive chaos at every turn. He is mad at “the herd” that ousted him from office, peeved with his treatment and unlikely to step into the shadows, let alone the political wilderness. He craves attention, connects with large sections of the public and dominates the media.
If Liz Truss is to achieve a sense of calm strategic stability, she must somehow learn to control her predecessor. Such a challenge might make the cost of living crisis look like the easy option: bridling Boris really will be mission impossible.
Matthew Flinders does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.