Voices: Jeremy Hunt has saved Liz Truss’s premiership

Sean O’Grady

Sun, 16 October 2022 at 12:36 pm

People say that Liz Truss is out of her depth, robotic, awkward, divisive, untrustworthy, uncharismatic, weak and a little bit misguided, and, of course, all of that is demonstrably, toe-curlingly true.

Now, trapped like a particularly inept rat in a corner – all due to her own blundering – she has displayed the basic instinct for self-preservation that has, after all, allowed this mediocre politician to rise to the highest elected office in the land. She gave Jeremy Hunt a job. It is by far the best decision she has made in her brief and tempestuous time as premier, and probably her entire life. It’s probably saved her.

Judging by Hunt’s confident media performances, he is indeed in charge, the de facto prime minister, with full control over economic policy, and with it, much of the domestic policy agenda. Where Truss scarpers as soon as decently possible after press conferences and avoids the media, Hunt is out there rebuilding political capital. He is charting the immediate course of events. He has taken back control, you might say, on behalf of the parliamentary party.

So Hunt is stamping his and the Treasury’s authority on Westminster. He has asked every cabinet member, including nominal deputy PM and health secretary Therese Coffey, to send him spending cuts (“efficiency savings”), and they shall. He is already lowering expectations and raising taxes. He is loyal to the prime minister, and self-deprecatingly dismisses any ambition to be in her job, on the grounds he failed twice in leadership elections.

He has a clear, saleable line to take: growth is the right aim, as are lower taxes, but the Truss government initially went about it the wrong way and made “mistakes”. His strategy will be in harmony with the Bank of England’s efforts to restrain inflation and will mean lower interest rates than otherwise – saving millions of homeowners from penury and repossession.

Hunt promises to be an “honest” chancellor, offering candour about difficult decisions. He’s set alight a bonfire of right-wing vanities. There will be no more senseless boosterism about a “new economic age”. He is kind to his predecessor, Kwasi Kwarteng, but anxious to move on. Above all, Hunt rightly pointed out to Laura Kuenssberg on the BBC – a nice phrase – that at the next election the voters will be much more concerned about the events of the next 18 months than the past 18 days. That is the Tories’ best hope, and they know it.

It’s all very refreshing, and it means that there is much less urgency behind the moves to oust Truss. “What’s the point of Truss?” is a very good question, now her project has been ditched and Trussonomics is no more. But it is balanced by an equally valid question now that the government has been reset – “What’s the point of getting rid of Truss?”

Yes, we all know she’s useless, but her enemies can’t agree on when to oust her, how to replace her, whom to replace her with, and what the new “new” prime minister is supposed to do. The Sunak-Mordaunt alliance, for example, which does sound like something from Star Wars, must know that if they are unlucky, the membership will put Suella Braverman in No 10. Which would be… interesting. Or Boris Johnson.

The MPs who want a quick palace coup and to exclude the party membership from electing a new leader must also fear that the party would be wrecked, even destroyed, as a result. There would be more chaos, more defections, more lost local councils, more blue-on-blue political fatalities.

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Truss is now shielded by Hunt, and far more difficult to get rid of than if she had kept Kwarteng and stuck to her policies, as so many urged her to do. She found, as so many of her predecessors have, that you can’t buck the market. Hunt understands this, which is why he has as good a chance as anyone of turning things around.

Truss may well be safe until the next election if she gets real about things. It is very much like when John Major survived a leadership challenge by John Redwood back in 1995. Redwood did much better than expected, and Major was vulnerable, so he promoted Michael Heseltine to be a powerful deputy prime minister. Heseltine, with the then chancellor Ken Clarke, served as a sort of praetorian guard to Major. Major survived, until he was obliterated by Tony Blair in 1997.

This bodyguard role to the PM is now the one Hunt has taken on with Truss, and she knows she can’t sack him. He is at least as powerful a chancellor in this government as Clarke was under Major, as Gordon Brown was with Tony Blair, and the almost joint premiership of David Cameron and George Osborne.

Plus Hunt looks likely to present a credible medium-term fiscal plan with backing from the Office for Budget Responsibility. If the markets calm down, so will the Tory MPs. They will be able to start asking Labour embarrassing questions about their alternative medium-term fiscal plan (there isn’t one). Not job done – but job begun.

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