It’s fair to say the Commons chamber hasn’t been quite the same since the departure of Dennis Skinner. The Beast of Bolsover lost his seat in the Red Wall wipe-out of 2019, just a few months short of completing a remarkable half-century as an MP. His comical quips – particularly at the State Opening of Parliament – became, for many, the main reason to sit through the interminable ritual of the occasion, providing some much-needed light relief from the ceremonial pantomime. Perhaps one of his most memorable digs at the Tories came during the Con-Dem Coalition years, when he referenced a Cabinet reshuffle brought on by some cock-up characteristic of appointing mediocrities to positions of power. Skinner aimed his barb at David Cameron and George Osborne, accusing them of being true to character by doing what toffs always do – they ‘blame it on the servants’. The political partnerships, of which the Cameron/Osborne double act was an example in the Blair/Brown mould, no longer seem to be the currency in Westminster. Power appears to be increasingly centralised in the person of an isolated individual like Theresa May or Boris…or Liz Truss. And has our incumbent PM blamed it on a servant by abruptly dismissing her Chancellor?
At least Kwasi Kwarteng has secured himself a place in history by being sacked after just 38 days – the shortest-ever run as Chancellor of the Exchequer that wasn’t caused by the holder of the office dropping dead, as happened to the unfortunate Ian Macleod within 30 days of Ted Heath’s General Election victory of 1970. Truss’s brainwave of handing posts to close friends, allies and those who publicly backed her during the leadership contest – regardless of their competency for the job at hand – spectacularly backfired with Kwarteng, who has become the patsy for the disastrous mini-budget earmarked as the PM’s first major act once the post-Brenda dust had settled. News broke of the swift sacking just before Truss held an emergency press conference at which she was expected to prove the lady’s for turning after all. The press conference spanned a mere eight minutes, during which she avoided questions over her own perilous position and speedily exited without responding to a request to ‘apologise for trashing the Tories’ reputation’. To be fair, that reputation was trashed long before Liz Truss grabbed the poisoned chalice, but she’s seemingly done her best to keep up the good work begun by her predecessor.
There’s no doubt the MSM is having fun speculating on who will replace Truss – surely a record time-span for such speculation to begin appearing? – and pressure on the Prime Minister to go when she’s barely had the chance to start work is akin to the new manager of a football club finding the fans on his back by opening his account with three defeats in a row. But Truss still being in the top job means she can fire the assistant manager, essentially ‘blaming it on the servant’ and lumbering him with carrying a can that nonetheless has her name on it by virtue of her own poor judgement in appointing Kwarteng in the first place. Rumour has it a divergence of opinion between the PM and her Chancellor on how to reverse the economic master-plan that provoked such panic in the markets and sent ripples through the Tory backbenches has been brewing for days, but Truss being in the senior position enabled her – in the legendary words of Jeremy Thorpe – to lay down her friends for her life. Whatever the dubious right of the far-from saintly City to intervene in the democratic process and reject Government policy, the PM evidently had to do something to calm the situation, and sacking Kwarteng was deemed the best option.
The ex-Chancellor himself will obviously reserve his true feelings for his future memoirs; the bland statement he issued was typically, uncritically sober. ‘You have asked me to stand aside as Chancellor,’ he tweeted. ‘I have accepted…I deeply respect the decision you have taken today. You have put the national interest first.’ Well, she certainly put the interests of Liz Truss first, but Kwarteng went on to try and defend the mini-budget as well as he could by claiming ‘following the status quo was simply not an option’ before adding ‘the economic situation has changed rapidly since we set out the growth plan on 23 September. In response, together with the Bank of England and excellent officials at the Treasury, we have responded to those events and I commend my officials for their dedication.’ On the positive side – for Mr Kwarteng – he’ll probably receive more from being paid-off (i.e. three months’ salary) than he pocketed from his month as Chancellor. Swings and roundabouts, eh? That’s undoubtedly true for the man who has eagerly stepped into Kwarteng’s shoes, none other than the former Foreign Secretary, Health Secretary and serial failed leadership contender, Jeremy Hunt. Stranded on the backbenches since 2019, Hunt is back in business, probably provoking palpitations in political presenters across the MSM as they attempt to stop their tongues slipping. Where’s James Naughtie when you need him?
If one were to count Rishi Sunak’s last few weeks at No.11 and include Nadhim Zahawi in his brief stint as ‘caretaker’, we’ve had four Chancellors in the space of three months. If ever evidence were required as to what a bloody shambles this shower of a governing party has descended into, look no further. I always thought only Italy ever had such unstable government, yet if the media and large swathes of the Conservative Party get their way and oust Truss, she herself will be in competition with George Canning as the shortest-serving Prime Minister in UK history. Canning held the top job for a mere 119 days between April and August 1827, though his term of office was inconveniently curtailed by his death. Canning, who had already been Foreign Secretary and Chancellor, was 57 when he became PM; he’d famously had a duel with fellow Minister Lord Castlereagh several years before, and his selection as Prime Minister by George IV deprived him of the talents of the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel (neither of whom would serve under him). If the talent available to Liz Truss seems so threadbare as to warrant the recall of Jeremy Hunt, Canning himself struggled to recruit Tories and resorted to Whigs, so severe was the split in Tory ranks at the time. Yes, we have been here before.
Canning died of consumption on 8 August 1827, four days short of just four months in office. Liz Truss’s physical health appears to be an improvement on that of her distant Tory predecessor; her mental health is another issue altogether – though maybe it’s not the done thing to mock the stupid these days. The same lame and meaningless buzzwords lifted from the politicians’ book of vapid platitudes tumbled out of her mouth during her brief post-Kwarteng press conference as she managed the admirable achievement of saying nothing for eight minutes. The PM ‘answered’ an impressive four questions, declaring she remains determined to deliver on all the pledges she made during the leadership campaign whilst refusing to say sorry for the chaos she’s presided over in the last few weeks. ‘I am absolutely determined to see through what I have promised,’ she said, ‘to deliver a higher growth, more prosperous United Kingdom, to see us through the storm we face.’ And then she was gone, presumably in a determined fashion – for that would seem to be her favourite word.
© The Editor