After a turbulent week in British politics, Subodh Tailor assesses the state of play for Labour as Liz Truss loses her authority over the Conservative Party.
Six weeks is a long time in politics. Prime Minister Liz Truss is in power but not in control, neither of the country nor her party. Few predicted that following her win in the Conservative leadership election, little over a month later she would unceremoniously dismiss her Chancellor and be clinging on to her position as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister.
Her appointment of former Health Secretary and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is a sign of her dwindling authority. This was clearly a move to allay her critics and the sizeable chunk of her Parliamentary Party who had backed Rishi Sunak. Instead, Truss has been met with a barrage of briefings, some from her own Cabinet members and a chorus from backbenchers both privately and publicly stating that it is now a question of when, not if, she will go.
It was also hoped that this would reassure the financial markets, which have been volatile since former Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini budget’. Truss’s press conference on Friday announcing Hunt’s appointment and yet another U-turn, this time on corporation tax, however, resulted in a negative market reaction. The latest U-turn has left her in a no-man’s land, losing the support of the free-market fundamentalists of the European Research Group, the One Nation Caucus who are still unconvinced by her fiscal policy, and the party membership, who feel as though they would have voted for Sunak if they wanted his policies. Tory ‘big beasts’ are reportedly plotting to install a triumvirate of Sunak, Mordaunt and Hunt but are working out how to do this without triggering yet another lengthy leadership election. However, as has become typical with the Conservatives, this ignores public sentiment which is increasingly leaning towards a general election. Another change of leadership without a democratic mandate from the electorate would be incomprehensible.
Unlike Truss, Hunt is hard to pin down ideologically, however, they bear some striking similarities. He is nominally a small state Conservative who voted and campaigned for Remain but had a Damascene conversion, becoming a cheerleader for a hard Brexit and advocate of “no deal is better than a bad deal”. The same ‘sensible’ and ‘centrist’ Jeremy Hunt was also responsible for a hard line on junior doctors’ pay that resulted in their first strike in 40 years.
In his years outside of Government as Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, Hunt has somewhat rebuilt his reputation. He has been a strong advocate for increasing the NHS workforce and patient safety and admits that, with hindsight, he would now make different decisions. It is telling then, that in his first media outing as Chancellor he all but confirmed that the NHS would receive a real term cut in spending. This at a time when the NHS predicts that it will have a £6 to 7 billion deficit, a situation its Chief Executive has called a “f*****g nightmare”. This is only one of the plethora of problems facing Hunt who will have no honeymoon period upon entering office. His statement on Monday may have calmed the markets slightly, but the post-2019 iteration of the Conservative Party was not voted in on a platform of public spending cuts.
For Labour, the state of play remains largely the same despite a couple of different opposition players on the pitch. Keir Starmer, backed up by Rachel Reeves and Jonathan Reynolds, continue to impress the business community and present a credible government-in-waiting with the Chief Executive of Tesco declaring that they are the “only team on the field”. However, the Labour Shadow team should prepare themselves for further volatility and volte faces from the Government. In the midst of this political noise Labour’s messaging must be clear, concise and act as the perfect contrast to a government in disarray. Starmer’s call to the public “don’t forgive, don’t forget” was powerful, but negative public sentiment will not be enough. While Labour enjoys commanding poll leads, these will inevitably tighten in the event of a general election, especially if Truss is no longer in charge. Starmer and the Shadow Cabinet have started to substantiate their policies, but the underlying subtext of negativity remains. Over the coming weeks and months Labour must set out a positive vision to give the public a reason to vote for them rather than against the Conservatives.
Subodh Tailor is a Consultant at Hanover Communications working in their health policy, advocacy and public affairs team. Prior to this he studied politics at the University of Edinburgh, where he helped co-organise the Free for All. Period. campaign for universal access to free period products in Scotland. He is also a trustee of Cancer Awareness for Teens and Twenties and an alumni advisor to Sanitree. He tweets at @subodhtailor.
Cover photo contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0. Photographer: Simon Dawson / No10 Downing Street. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.