Unpolished, not that intellectual, sometimes gawky, occasionally gaffe-prone and at times needing protection. Not many saw her as the next PM.
No, not Jacinda. Liz Truss is the firm favourite to succeed Boris Johnson as Britain’s next PM in early September. And perhaps not someone who needs that much protection.
At first the smart money was on Rishi Sunak, the even smarter former finance minister. He showed his political acumen with nuanced discontent for Boris’s increasingly wayward policies, before implementing them with gusto. His political conscience emerged as Johnson’s administration hit the skids.
But while Rishi might be the choice of Conservative party MPs, they only get to choose the final candidates. The party membership makes the call. And it seems Boris has exhausted the members’ tolerance for talented opportunism.
Hence the opening for a candidate who resembles a Thatcherite believer.
This ought to please everyone (except perhaps Mr Sunak).
Believers in twenty-first-century orthodoxy, the media and opposition parties get someone less elusive than Boris to hate. Conservatives get a leader sympathetic to Lampedusa’s dictum ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will really have to change.’
Because, in her simplicity, Liz might have an inkling of the nature of the political economy problem Britain faces.
For twenty years, political success has gone to those who say that government can solve any number of problems for a winning coalition of interest groups, whilst ensuring that no-one suffers pain from their own actions.
The result, at least in the UK, is a finance sector leaking productivity while conforming to American and European regulatory schemes; an energy sector working on a cost-plus basis for Whitehall’s central planners; state spending growth without delivering services customers want; and workers bamboozled into believing that reward doesn’t have to be linked to the financial value of one’s contribution.
It’s true that the British variant of Western orthodoxy has had impeccable cross party support: starting with the Blair-Brown Labour party; carried on by David Cameron and Boris Johnson’s Conservatives; and even including the responsibility-shy Liberal Democrats under Nicholas Clegg for five years of coalition government. (Clegg now earns a very handsome wedge from Facebook for unsuccessfully beseeching his European chums not to impose growth-destroying regulation on the tech sector).
Even so, it won’t be easy for the next Tory leader to proclaim that we all got that one wrong, and now things have to change. She (or perhaps even he) shouldn’t expect credit for honesty. Even if contemporary thinking regards it as an act of kindness.
Particularly when the change is to let markets go to work encouraging productive activity, while destroying less-productive jobs in ways we can’t quite imagine, and at the same time cutting back the government’s responsibilities to a less ambitious (and properly costed) range of interventions.
Then things really could change for Britain. Ditching wasteful infrastructure projects like high-speed rail; explosive growth in fossil fuel output to provide short-term energy security; more highly-paid tech and perhaps even finance jobs; a wrenching shrinkage of the tertiary education sector; bracingly high interest rates to squeeze out inflation and crush over-valued asset markets. These are just some of the possibilities.
Two difficulties supervene.
First, it would be quite a shock after all the years of soothing promises, and Liz doesn’t have a mandate for shock.
Secondly, markets will respond powerfully (they always do), but only after a lag and, crucially, when they believe policy is here to stay.
Which would give Liz three choices.
She can crack on with neo-Thatcherism and hope that developments in the world economy and politics (like a Republican party triumph in the November congressional election) prove her right before her government’s term runs out at the beginning of 2025.
Or she could follow the approach of Andy Farrell, the Irish rugby coach, and kick the ball back to the opposition. While she would be unlikely to win an early election on a platform of pain, there is no obvious alternative government with credible policies. So she might hope to regain possession relatively quickly and with a much better field position.
But she will need a great deal of determination to avoid the third option. The rugby board’s dithering over All Black coach Ian Foster reminds us of the enduring attraction of least-change mediocrity, of reluctance to admit error, and unwillingness to do the right thing – until all the wrong options have first been thoroughly explored.