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After the tribalism of Johnson’s premiership, Liz Truss must now unite the party

After the tribalism of Johnson’s premiership, Liz Truss must now unite the party

(Alamy)

4 min read

Liz Truss enters No 10 as the fourth Prime Minister in six years, after 12 years of Tory rule – taking on the leadership of a deeply divided party.

All against the background of an unprecedented cost of living crisis, war in Europe, rising tensions with China, falling well behind Labour in the polls and an election on the horizon. The stakes could not be higher. The danger is she will come to office but not to power. Why?

Unless Truss can reverse the polls, the sense that the political tide is on the turn will detract still further from her authority to govern

The power of a prime minister comes first from a mandate with the people she seeks to rule, but Truss only inherits Boris Johnson’s. Her radical plans for tax cuts and no “handouts” and as yet still unknown response to the energy crisis carry huge risk, and the potential of stark social division are going to be very difficult to land politically. With an election beyond the horizon, unless she can reverse the polls, the sense that the political tide is on the turn will detract still further from her authority to govern, including over her own party.

British prime ministers also owe their position to the parties they lead. Truss can celebrate a clear but not resounding victory from the membership, but she struggled to win over her colleagues in Parliament, despite the careerists coming in behind her in recent days. The party is feeling sensitive and brooding having finishing off two leaders in quick succession, the last being a legendary campaigner who found governing suited him less well. But his shadow will loom over a jumpy party – and he will likely make his presence felt with a newspaper column, speeches and a book, no doubt.

This poses another dilemma for Truss – she has cleverly run as both the change and loyalty candidate. Yet all prime ministers must differentiate themselves and she will too. But how? No 10 itself is an important focus here. Boris governed from chaos and undermined integrity at the heart of government. Truss needs to restore order and trust to No 10 and create the right climate for good decision making. She would also be wise to restore standards in public life which gave the impression that rules were for other people to obey. 

Patronage remains a formidable power for any prime minister, but again, this is a double-edged sword, with a large parliamentary party so split over the most important policy judgement calls of the day. Here I would urge Truss to go for a big tent and avoid the tribal cabinets of the Boris Johnson era. She should feel confident enough to include tall poppies from all wings of the party, and visionary enough to bring in new faces. 

Truss understands that her support is based on having the “mo” (political momentum) which is driven by the smell of success. Here lies her opportunity but also her greatest risk. A prime minister’s standing largely depends on how the country is faring and her potential for future power. Yet falling polls alongside negative growth will bring her fading prospects as she enters the long campaign for the next general election.

Running a good No 10 requires a dextrous combination of firefighting, running the country competently and strategizing about where we are going next. The danger is that the all-important middle – the running of the country – is squashed by the politics, where the noisy rhetoric fails to address the very serious issues our country faces.

Most of all Truss needs to remember she is now Prime Minister of the whole country and think carefully on how her decisions affects us all, not just the core of the party.

Truss will have no honeymoon period and needs to hit the ground (running). 

 

Baroness Fall, Conservative peer and former deputy chief of staff to David Cameron at No 10. 

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