The relentless rise of Liz Truss

Hardly for the first time in my life, I have got something wrong. In my recent post on the Conservative leadership contest I suggested that Rishi Sunak would prevail over Liz Truss. This was based on the thought that Conservative members were more sensible than they are usually portrayed to be, and that they would react against the apparent recklessness of Ms Truss – t and favour Mr Sunak’s better presentation skills. I have badly underestimated Ms Truss, as I now think she is unstoppable, but I’m hardly the first person to do so.

Monday night’s TV debate showed why. Mr Sunak badly needed to portray Ms Truss’s economic plans as reckless (an opinion which I share), and especially that they could send inflation and interest rates up. He got his point across pretty successfully. In the process we found him talking over his opponent repeatedly with the confident male assurance that far too many of us have seen senior men do with female colleagues. Would he have done that with a male opponent? You bet he would – he was desperate to convey his message. So it probably wasn’t sexism – it was the opposite, not making concessions to Ms Truss’s sex. But it was a very bad look, and looks matter. Ms Truss held her line firmly; the waves broke over a rock. She had ripostes prepared, and she used them. Mr Sunak’s plans were contractionary (er… that goes with taming inflation); it was all Project Fear (a clever reference to the Remain campaign’s warnings of the economic consequences of Brexit – which have largely been proved right, but which Mr Sunak could not point out); it was all Treasury conservatism and “bean-counting” (true enough – but not actually relevant in this context). She surely did enough to cast doubt in Conservative members’ minds about Mr Sunak’s plans. Meanwhile Mr Sunak’s behaviour neutralised his actually rather impressive confidence and command.

This is a race between the tortoise and the hare, that we have so often seen played out in politics. The patient plotter quietly and relentlessly pursuing their ambitions, while their flashier opponents fall apart one by one. John Major; Gordon Brown; Theresa May – (you can go back further – Jim Callaghan; Ted Heath; Clement Attlee). Like all of these, Ms Truss has endured massive amounts of sneering criticism on her journey upwards. Apart from Attlee, though, none of them were particularly successful once they achieved the summit of their ambitions.

I have in fact met Ms Truss. It was before she was an MP, when she was attending a Lib Dem conference in the later 2000s on behalf of Reform, a think thank devoted to new ideas for public services. We exchanged pleasantries, but I don’t remember much beyond that. Reform’s ideas were (and still are) definitely centre-right – and more to the right in those days of New Labour. They favoured the conversion of state schools to academies, for example – something of a red herring in policy terms. As I remember they had better ideas elsewhere – they had a god line of constructive criticism. This part of Ms Truss’s career tells us two things. First is that she is fluent in the world of think tanks and policy debate. She is repeatedly portrayed as being a bit dim: this is far from true – but it is harder to shake the accusation of shallowness. The second thing this tells is us is that she is a professional politician, and knows no other trade. She was in her late 20s at this stage – was elected to parliament in 2010 and quickly became a junior minister (in 2012), reaching the cabinet in 2014. To be fair, she did train as a management accountant (i.e. a qualified bean-counter, like me, though working in business rather than in the profession) – but she did not take up any serious professional or management role. Her whole life seems to have been political – with politically active parents, and active with the Liberal Democrats at university, before taking up with the Conservatives. She paints this as a political journey, rather than opportunism – and I’m happy to take her word on this. I’m told she was never a left-wing Lib Dem, and the Conservative Party is in the long run a happier place for economic liberals – though deeply out of fashion in the 1990s. But a political career was clearly always on her mind.

Where does this leave us? We have no reason to doubt her conviction to a particular political philosophy (unlike Boris Johnson, for example) – that of being an economic liberal. But her attachment to particular policies never seems to be very strong. She knows all about how to win power, but her ideas about how to exercise it have less “bottom”. This isn’t all bad – disaster can happen when a particular politician has an idée fixe, which they pursue obsessively regardless of evidence. A particular disaster was Andrew Lansley, the first Health Secretary in the coalition government of 2010, who implemented an over-engineered reform of the NHS when it was already suffering reform fatigue. Ms Truss might have the flexibility to change course when things go wrong. The danger is that her yardstick of success is less about actual achievement than the political mood. She is not a conviction politician like Margaret Thatcher. If she was, she would have been completely thrown by Brexit, which she energetically opposed, and now supports with equal energy.

Getting the top job, if she succeeds, is going to be a big shock for her. You can’t get away with sleight of hand. If the economy goes seriously wrong, for example, she can’t simple vanish and blame somebody else. She may be comfortable with rapid changes of course, but she would then find it harder to persuade people to trust her. She is a poor public speaker, verging on disastrous. This was one reason that many people, including me, never took her chances of rising to the top seriously. She simply did not look the part.

As my readers will know, I think her ideas for tax cuts will be disastrous. They will hinder the fight against inflation, which will lead to increasing interest rates. They are a gamble that you can fight inflation without damaging economic growth. Given the obstacles the country is experiencing international trade and labour markets, not least by Brexit, this looks unrealistic. She may well be forced into austerity policies, including public service cuts just as an election looms.

So if I was a Conservative member I would choose Mr Sunak. But Ms Truss has been running this race for much longer than him. And it shows.

No, tax cuts won’t deliver economic growth

Elizabeth Truss – UK Parliament official portraits 2017
Photo: Chris McAndrew, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been away on holiday for the last week, near Bakewell in the beautiful Peak District of Derbyshire. So I haven’t commented on the race to succeed Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party – which under the UK’s unwritten constitution means the automatic assumption of the office of Prime Minister. I did watch (most of) the two televised debates. You will have to take my word for it that I was predicting that the final two would be Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss even as Penny Maudaunt was the 58% betting favourite to win the whole thing.

As I write, Ms Maudaunt may yet make it to the final two, to be decided by party members, and even Mr Sunak’s place there is not guaranteed. But let’s assume that things turn out as I predicted. Which one is likely to win overall? This is hard to predict. YouGov have made a valiant attempt as polling Conservative members, but to get their sample they are fishing in a large lake for a rare fish. Their polling suggests that Ms Truss has a comfortable lead. This fits with most commentators’ prejudices of the Tory membership, as most think they will prefer Ms Truss’s more ideological pitch – or may even be worried by Mr Sunak’s ethnicity. Actually I’m not so sure, and I expect Mr Sunak to prevail in the end.

These two candidates were always the strongest in the field of seven candidates left after Jeremy Hunt was eliminated. They have both held one of the great offices of state (indeed Ms Truss is still Foreign Secretary), and they are both well grounded in the sorts of choices governments have to make. The other candidates have come up with interesting debating points but show little evidence of actual grasp. Meanwhile both Mr Sunak and Ms Truss have come closest to putting forward coherent policy positions – and they clash. Mr Sunak has taken the continuity position, of keeping taxes and spending much as they are, and defending the various measures put forward to relieve hardship as the cost of living crisis takes hold. This makes sense as he was Chancellor of the Exchequer until very recently. This has been heavily criticised by Ms Truss. She says that the tax rises (National Insurance is going up, alongside Corporation Tax rates) will cause recession. Instead tax should be cut in the short term, to generate economic growth. Inflation should be curbed by the Bank of England – whom she suggested were in large part responsible for inflation in the first place.

Three questions are posed by this challenge. First, will tax cuts generate growth? Second, can Britain afford more public debt? And third, is the fight against inflation best left to the central bank? The first question is in fact quite complex one – and politicians of left and right often try to hide in the complexity to justify populist policies of lower taxes or higher spending.

There are a number of ways that tax cuts can stimulate growth. The most direct is by allowing people to spend more (assuming that it isn’t accompanied by public spending cuts) – which helps take up economic slack. Donald Trump’s tax cuts worked like this, at least to some extent. But there is very little sign of slack in the UK economy. Indeed this is one of the causes of the inflation crisis. Tax cuts will either fuel inflation or suck in imports (and the country is running a current account deficit). A second mechanism for tax to affect growth is by drawing in more capital – fixed or human – by improving incentives. The case for this is strongest for Corporation Tax – as this is something multinational companies factor into their choice of where in the world to invest – but there is little evidence that it is a big factor in the UK. But Corporation Tax is a very efficient tax, and low interest rates are keeping costs of investment generally low. There is in any case a big time lag between any tax cut and any change to investment behaviour – it will have little effect on whether the country avoids recession this year or next. The question of incentives for income taxes is much less clear – it is a classic essay question for first-year economics students. Lower taxes make work more rewarding increasing the incentive to do more, but also the could reduce the need to work to fund your chosen standard of living. If tax rates are very high (for example, the top rate of 83% current when I was calculating payroll deductions in 1976) the chances are that the former predominates – but the case is much harder to make at current levels. Tax cuts won’t help growth, especially in the short to medium term.

Can Britain afford to borrow more, meaning that it is easier to cut taxes without cutting spending too? The Conservatives promised not to do this in their 2019 manifesto. But Ms Truss suggests that we can get round this by classifying a chunk of debt as “Covid debt” to be paid off over a longer time frame. Mr Sunak says this is nonsense. Running a budget deficit in a country that controls its own currency isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it does not work like a household budget. If there is slack in the rest of the economy it is almost a national duty. And there is the argument that if the markets can’t stomach it, you can simply create the shortfall as money. But this can be inflationary, and there comes a point when the providers of finance insist on lending in other currencies. Britain has not been in anything like this danger zone since the early 1980s, when deficits from nationalised industries caused havoc to government finances. Inflation has made the picture more complicated, and debt levels are historically high (in part thanks to the covid crisis). But Ms Truss is probably right on this one – if you can deal with the arguments on inflation.

And here Ms Truss says the Bank of England can take more of the strain in turning the tide. Indeed she has suggested that the bank is partly to blame for the inflation crisis in the first place. In one of the debates she suggested that the Bank’s mandate should be modelled on that of the Bank of Japan. It is hard to credit this. The only way that the bank can fight inflation is to raise interest rates. This restrains growth – indeed the policy makes no distinction between restraining growth and restraining inflation – it tackles one through the other. From somebody who is suggesting that the problem is a lack of growth this is an extraordinary line to take. Further, the inflation problem has largely been brought about by problems on the supply side of the economy (oil/gas problems, Brexit, covid and a spate of early retirements in the workforce). It is hard to see how higher interest rates would have helped. It is simply a shallow attempt at blame shifting.

But none of the leadership contenders have wanted to confront the economic reality of Britain’s position. Britain’s workforce relative to its total population is shrinking due to demographic changes. Those same changes are placing public services under greater pressure, especially in health and social care. There are no soft spots on public spending – squeezing local authorities and benefits merely puts other services, especially the NHS and police, under yet more pressure. We have cut too much on defence. There is no productivity bonanza that will make public spending more affordable – or to be more precise, improvements in productivity are affecting a shrinking share of the economy, and cannot be expected to provide a get-out-of-jail-free card. All that points to higher taxes, or taking the country down the route of high inflation and currency and debt crises. By suggesting that he will only look at tax cuts once inflation has been dealt with, at least Mr Sunak has one foot on the ground. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king.

Funnily enough I have more sympathy with the Tory position than most on the left. Public spending (and taxes) should be subject to continual challenge. It is lazy to shrug our shoulders and suggest that nothing can be done. it is better for people to make their own choices n expenditure. There is a huge challenge in making public services more effective and accountable. But fantasy economics does not help.