Lettuce explain the fall of Liz Truss.
A little after 1:30 in the afternoon on Thursday, London time, Truss resigned after 45 days in office, becoming the shortest-serving prime minister in U.K. history. She was done in by a budgetary fiasco, staff turmoil, and a chaotic scene in parliament on Wednesday, all of which have given Britons the impression of a country in disarray.
Truss delivered her resignation in front of 10 Downing Street, but that was not the image that best captured this moment for Britain. For that, you had to turn to the YouTube channel of the Daily Star. There, at the moment she announced her exit, Truss’ portrait was lowered, face-down, onto a small table. Next to it, a tired-looking lettuce in a wig had won a face-off to see if the country’s struggling new leader could outlast a chunk of Tesco produce. She sank; the iceberg remained.
Truss was dealt a bad hand and played it badly. She took the reins last month at a difficult time for the Conservative Party, damaged by the scandal-tarnished tenure of Boris Johnson, as well as for her country, which faces high inflation, an energy shortage, and a war in Europe. Inauspiciously, the country’s beloved monarch Queen Elizabeth II died just two days after Truss shook her hand, prompting a long period of national mourning.
When that was over, Truss’s budget chief, Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng, announced a radical plan to cut taxes on high earners and corporations. International markets recoiled. The pound fell to its lowest-ever level against the dollar, and borrowing costs shot up as bond buyers expressed their skepticism about the country’s fiscal planning. The Bank of England stepped in to calm the situation, but three weeks later—last week—Truss summoned Kwarteng back from a conference in Washington, D.C., and replaced him with a new chancellor who reversed most of the “mini-budget.”
Polling showed Brits getting fed up with Downing Street; Truss’ own rank-and-file were upset. On Wednesday, her home secretary (sort of like our Homeland Security secretary) Suella Braverman resigned after mishandling a government document. Then, in a major self-inflicted wound, Truss decided to frame a fracking vote in parliament as a vote of confidence in her administration, demanding loyalty (and a vote for fracking) from her parliamentarians. In the U.K., fracking is unpopular, and some Conservatives abstained; others, opposition members attested, were “manhandled” and “bullied” into voting with the government.
All in all, it was a shambolic last full day of the Truss era, and she resigned Thursday afternoon, leaving Conservatives to once again select a leader to face down a very hostile public. The Tories have held Downing Street for more than a decade, but recent polls show U.K. voters favor the opposition Labour Party by a 30-point margin. A general election will be held at the latest in early 2025, but could occur sooner.
For the opposition, meanwhile, the whole saga has been by turns distressing and hilarious.
But there’s a warning for Labour in Truss’s downfall, too. This time, it worked in the left’s favor that taxing and spending policy in the United Kingdom is subject to the approval of international financial markets. But the chaos that followed the mini-budget might come for any Labour government that attempted to redesign the country’s economic approach.
Writing in the New Statesman, Duncan Wheldon compared Truss’ submission to that of François Mitterand, the French leftist who became the country’s first socialist president in a quarter-century when he ascended to the Elysée in 1981. “This is Mitterrand but from the other side of the ideological spectrum and at a faster pace. His initial programme, upon winning the French presidency in 1981, included mass nationalisation, wealth taxes and a higher minimum wage. Market pressure on both the franc and French government bonds forced the tournant de la rigueur, or “austerity turn”, of 1983 (public spending was cut by 44 billion francs and taxes were increased by 40 billion francs).”
That’s where the similarities end; the Frenchman held the office for almost 14 years, the country’s longest-serving president. But he, too, had to make a domestic policy U-turn to appease global markets. Today’s, it’s Truss’s problem that the international financial system doesn’t like public spending. Tomorrow it will be Labour’s.