British politics has a serious problem, meaning not only that it faces grave challenges but that one of them is the struggle to be serious.
The appointment of Jeremy Hunt as chancellor was meant to restore maturity in economic management by dismantling the policy playground where Liz Truss had made her pitch to be prime minister.
That bought some stability in financial markets but piled absurdity on to the political balance sheet. Hunt is the fourth chancellor this year. He came last in the leadership race that put Truss in Downing Street. Now the loser instructs the winner, whose grip on power – and reality – is so tenuous she can barely hold the pen to take dictation. Fiscal policy might be back on track, but there is no plan to close the seriousness deficit.
Tory MPs know the prime minister must be replaced, but not by whom. Most agree that party members should be excluded from the decision in case they saddle the nation with another dud.
But Truss was on the ballot because MPs put her there. The risks inherent in her fiscal plan were signposted by Rishi Sunak in every debate. Her inability to distinguish between mischief and statecraft was displayed when she refused to say whether the president of France was “friend or foe”.
The flippancy was deliberate. Truss ran as the less serious of the two candidates. Ambitious Tory MPs jettisoned qualms about that to keep pace with the bonkers bandwagon.
Glib parochialism is part of Boris Johnson’s legacy, to his party and the country. His deficiencies were understood better by the general public than by Tory grassroots members, and in a ballot of the latter there was no incentive to repudiate the outgoing leader or even acknowledge the reasons why he had to go.
Johnson endorsed Truss, via loyal proxies, partly to be avenged on Sunak, whose resignation had precipitated his downfall, and partly because he knew she was incapable of doing the job. He hoped his own dismal tenure would look brighter in hindsight, lit by the glow of his successor going down in flames.
It worked, at least in the arena of Conservative grassroots opinion, where polls show some appetite for a Johnson restoration.
Less so in the country at large. In truth, Truss’s spectacular implosion is not a vindication of her predecessor but a measure of his monstrous, self-serving vanity, wanting Britain to have the worst ever prime minister to avoid the indignity of keeping the title for himself.
Johnson begat Truss. Before that, Theresa May begat Johnson. She made him foreign secretary not because she expected him to do the job well but because she knew he couldn’t, and hoped conspicuous failure in a great office of state would scupper his prospects of challenging her for the greatest one. Instead, he established the precedent that buffoonery carries no penalty when climbing the Tory hierarchy.
That became his pitch for the leadership. May had tested to destruction the idea that there was a way to reconcile the demands of hardline Eurosceptics with strategic and economic reality. Her Brexit deal, for all its flaws, expressed recognition that a prime minister is duty-bound to govern seriously.
Johnson offered instead a flight to fantasy. He resettled his party in the make-believe world where Brexit has no downside; where treaties are links in the chain that remainers use to keep Britannia shackled to Europe.
Departure from sensible government created demand for ministers who were either happy to say ridiculous things in exchange for cabinet jobs, or had always been ridiculous and were thrilled to find it was no longer an obstacle to promotion. Thus Nadine Dorries and Suella Braverman entered the cabinet, as did Jacob Rees-Mogg, a cartoon character made flesh with no record of achievement in any field apart from self-parody. And even Johnson stopped short of giving him a proper department to run.
There was enough cynical self-awareness in the “Boris” act for its charlatan creator to see that Rees-Mogg’s similar shtick is no less fraudulent. Truss, being credulous as well as fanatical, made him business secretary.
The prime minister is a hothouse flower. Her candidacy was incubated in the sweaty bubble of libertarian zeal under the high-wattage bulbs of rightwing thinktanks. Her plans grew from seeds of US Republican-style anti-government conservatism that isn’t native to Britain’s political soil, in a micro-climate controlled by the Tory press.
The colder economic reality got outside, the higher the ideological thermostat was turned. Truss was deluded enough to think she was thriving until her wild economic plans shattered the windows and freezing air rushed in from the markets. The exotic plant wilted at a speed that is almost painful to witness.
Her former cheerleaders hastily don winter coats and pretend the mess is not of their making. A Sun editorial invites “grownups” to take the reins. The Mail calls for intervention by the “wise men and women of the Conservative party”.
They must make do with Jeremy Hunt. He does a passable impression of gravitas by looking sadly stoical, like a customer in a restaurant taking the news that his favourite item is off the menu.
Tory MPs depict him as some kind of venerable elder recalled from exile, as if the safeness of his hands were certified by them having avoided contact with the levers of power in recent years. Whether his judgment merits that status is doubtful. When he ran for the leadership in 2019, he matched Johnson for readiness to take Britain out of the EU without a deal. His flagship policy this summer was an unfunded corporation tax cut bigger than the one in Truss’s plan that he has just reversed.
Twice Hunt has sought to lead his party; twice he was rejected. Now, apparently, that is a recommendation to be chancellor. In other words, even Tory MPs are measuring reliability in distance from their own record, and defining sensible government as the opposite of whatever their members want.
It is a good metric, and one that voters will take to the logical conclusion: the serious problem with British politics is an absurd Conservative party that hardly even trusts itself to govern any more.