Edmund Burke – one of the great theorists of the state – argued that for a government to rule successfully, it must have consent. Liz Truss lacked that consent; she moved like Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, ruling with an iron fist towards her economic vision without the consent, explicit or implicit, to rule in that manner and pursue that agenda.
Her economic programme was wholly unsuitable for the climate and deeply damaging. The result was that her reign, like Hobbes’ state of nature where nobody had the political legitimacy to rule, was nasty, brutish and short. It has left the mantle impossibly difficult for her successor.
Liz Truss has become the first prime minister since Neville Chamberlain to never face a general election whilst in office, and her successor will be under immediate pressure to call one. The economic situation is far more dire than it was before her disastrous mini-budget, and trust is shattered. This is before expected interest rate increases could tip millions into unaffordable mortgages, and the expiry of the energy support scheme (except for targeted support). Whoever takes over will face crises on multiple fronts that may prove impossible to arrest.
The first major crisis is an economic one. The mini-budget has now been shredded and markets have stabilised. Gilt yields have fallen, making UK government borrowing cheaper, and the pound has recovered from its low in the wake of the mini-budget. This puts the next prime minister in a stronger position than had Jeremy Hunt not taken the UK’s financial reins last week. However, the cost-of-living crisis remains a clutch issue, and regardless of the statement being delivered by the Chancellor on the 31st of October, rising interest rates will become an increasing issue.
This could plunge families into a position where they cannot afford to pay their mortgages and the next prime minister will immediately need to consider the issue, in much the same way that Liz Truss was forced to make an intervention in the energy market within her first days as prime minister.
This creates choppy waters for the new prime minister – will some sort of direct support package, similar to the energy support scheme, be required? This would potentially increase the deficit further and force deeper departmental cuts than those Jeremy Hunt already hinted at in his statement earlier this week.
The other major issue is a political one. Less than three years ago, the United Kingdom elected Boris Johnson as its prime minister. The nation is now staring down the barrel of its third in three months, the latter two of whom both coming into office without a public mandate. Although this is how the UK Parliamentary democracy works without serious calls for a general election upon Truss’ ascension, but these calls will become deafening now.
After the Conservative Party foisted a new prime minister on the United Kingdom, who proved so disastrous that a handbrake turn was required on all her policy before she was ultimately told to step away from the wheel, the United Kingdom’s electorate can quite legitimately point to the next prime minister and question their mandate. Where is the consent for a prime minister who pursues – presumably – an entirely different set of policies than those in the 2019 manifesto, which are entirely different from those pursued merely weeks ago. At least those policies had the consent of the Conservative Party membership in the weird constitutional function that it is now called upon to fulfil.
Nonetheless, whoever takes over will be left in an impossibly difficult position and may be forced – despite the Conservative’s large majority – into calling a general election in the new year.
Even if they avoid ruling without asking for the explicit consent of the electorate, they must govern in a way that maintains tacit consent in the policies they are pursuing. They must not capitulate to a small wing of the party’s fringe economic ideas which proved unsuitable for our climate. To do so would risk a similarly short term.
Regardless of who takes over, and how they choose to govern, they will be taking on a poisoned chalice and risk their own premiership being just as disastrous.