Liz Truss Fought the Lettuce, and the Lettuce Won
Britain will have a new prime minister next week.
In the end, the lettuce won. Six days ago, Liz Truss’s leadership was in such trouble that a British tabloid began a livestream to test a simple proposition: Could the shelf life of a supermarket vegetable outlast her time as prime minister?
Today, the lettuce looked a little bruised, but it could still be incorporated into a healthy salad. Sadly, Liz Truss serves no such useful purpose. At 1:30 p.m. London time, she announced that she was leaving office. Her replacement will be elected next week.
The saga of Liz and the lettuce tells us many things about British political culture, one of which is its taste for lousy jokes. How was the Brexiteer Liz Truss brought down? A Romaine plot. Why did she make so many mistakes? Just cos. Was her decision to give a tax cut to the rich her fatal error? No, it was just the tip of the iceberg. Be thankful there aren’t more varieties of lettuce.
The other lesson is that the prime-ministerial system allows political parties to ditch a leader who has become a liability. None of this sitting around until November hoping the president doesn’t advocate injecting yourself with Clorox again—no, Liz Truss managed 44 days as prime minister before her own party made it clear that her services were no longer required. (To convert that into American measurements, that’s about four Scaramuccis.) She is now the shortest-serving prime minister in British history, racking up less than half the tenure of a guy who died of tuberculosis.
What went wrong? As I wrote earlier this week, everything. Her economic plans made the markets shudder. Her staffing decisions alienated her colleagues. Her poll numbers suggested that the Conservatives were heading for an electoral wipeout. Britain’s economic situation is extremely precarious: Inflation is higher than 10 percent, food banks are warning about elevated demand, and there is a small possibility of electricity blackouts over the winter. Yet despite the widespread fear these things engender, in the end, so much went wrong for Truss that people kept telling me they felt sorry for her. She was absolutely hopeless. Watching her stagger on began to seem cruel.
Since I opened the casket for a sniff on Monday, the Truss administration has continued to decay with impressive speed. Yesterday morning, the prime minister was forced to suspend one of her closest advisers for allegedly calling a former cabinet colleague “shit” in a press briefing. That afternoon, Home Secretary Suella Braverman resigned after accidentally forwarding a confidential briefing from her personal email account. “Pretending we haven’t made mistakes, carrying on as if everyone can’t see that we have made them, and hoping that things will magically come right is not serious politics,” Braverman wrote in her resignation letter. “I have made a mistake; I accept responsibility; I resign.” The subtext was clear: You should too. Given that Truss had already sacked her chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, on Friday, this meant that her government had lost two of its most senior ministers in less than a week.
Sounds bad, huh? Oh, we’re just getting started. Yesterday evening, the opposition Labour Party forced a vote to ban fracking—a disruptive gas-drilling technology that local communities typically hate and that even a fracking-company founder says is unlikely to be feasible in Britain. In 2019, every Conservative politician in the House of Commons was elected on a manifesto promising not to allow fracking, yet Truss decided to force her party to vote against the proposed ban. (She loves fracking but hates solar panels, apparently because she has replaced her brain with a right-wing newspaper column.) What’s more, her team told everyone that the fracking vote was effectively a confidence motion in her leadership.
Invited to show their continuing support for Truss, more than three dozen of her colleagues declined. The mood in the House of Commons was like closing time at a biker bar. A scrum broke out in the parliamentary corridor where the voting took place, and the Conservatives’ deputy chief whip—the second in command on matters of party discipline—was heard shouting an expletive-laden phrase at the unruly parliamentarians. (Please enjoy either an unexpurgated German news report or a British one with the relevant words daintily replaced with “effing.”) The whip resigned, along with his boss, only for Truss’s team to announce via a text to journalists at 1:30 a.m. today that the pair “remained in place.”
I’ve long nursed a theory that we underestimate how difficult some jobs are—talk-show host, bomb-disposal expert—because only talented people are usually allowed to have a go at them. This week has revealed something similar about running a government. Wow, we all thought this summer, Boris Johnson is presiding over a chaotic, undisciplined mess. This is the pits. And then Liz Truss said, Hold my beer.
Truss’s swift downfall is her own doing, but it is also part of a bigger story of British political instability. From 1997 to 2016, Britain had just three prime ministers. By the time Truss’s replacement takes charge, the country will have had five since 2016. Based on current trends, David Beckham will have been called to serve by 2050, along with James Corden, the cast of Downton Abbey, and every contestant on The Great British Baking Show. Even worse, during a time of terrifying financial instability, Britain has had four chancellors in four months. Jeremy Hunt, the current incumbent—at time of writing, at least—is due to deliver a multiyear economic plan on October 31. It will be signed off on by a prime minister who will have been in place for 72 hours.
Far be it from me to disagree with a colleague, but unlike The Atlantic’s Tom McTague, I do blame Brexit for this turbulence—at least in part. The referendum on leaving the European Union was supposed to resolve a split in the Conservative Party. It did no such thing. After the Leave vote doomed Prime Minister David Cameron, a Remain supporter, the argument moved on to how “hard” the break with the EU would be. That particular debate then ended the prime-ministerial career of Theresa May, who was unable to reconcile her moderate instincts with the loudest, most obstinate wing of her party. Her successor, Boris Johnson, then floundered in the job precisely because of the instinct that made him a Brexiteer: his belief that hard decisions could simply be avoided. (His lockdown parties were only one reason his party turned against him; the other was his slowness to accept that two misbehaving colleagues had to be disciplined.)
In Truss, the Brexit instinct reached its natural conclusion. No compromises would be made with reality. Ideology was everything. The other (and perhaps more genuine) reason for Braverman’s departure is that the new chancellor wanted more immigration to boost the British economy, and she didn’t. The dominant strain of Brexitism, to which Braverman belongs, is opposed to more immigration—without being willing to say out loud that the trade-off is making Britain poorer. A similar tendency is evident among the most extreme Brexiteers and their sympathetic media outlets. In this telling, Truss didn’t fail as prime minister because her policies were unpopular and profligate—instead, a “globalist coup” must be to blame. Conspiracism—from the side that won the referendum, no less—is now a permanent feature of British political conversation.
This is the danger of “cakeism”—a style of politics where moderation, trade-off, and compromise are dirty words. Over the summer, Truss told Conservative Party members and supportive newspapers what they wanted to hear: She could deliver a low-tax libertarian paradise—a radical overhaul of British economic policy—despite also needing to spend billions of pounds on energy subsidies because of high wholesale gas prices. She was wrong to make the promise, and they were fools to believe it.
The upcoming leadership contest will be fast, furious, and divisive: The Conservatives currently look as unified as a sack full of raccoons and cocaine. The odds-on favorite is Rishi Sunak, the runner-up to Truss this summer, although several other candidates are canvassing support. And there is another possibility. Because the 2019 election is the last time the Conservatives consulted the rest of the country on their policies, some on the right claim that there is only one man who has a mandate from the British people: Boris Johnson.
Frankly, I would rather take my chances with the lettuce.