Conservative Party members are, on the whole, a forgiving lot. In 2019 they forgave Boris Johnson for his history of betrayals, gaffes and incompetence, gave him another chance, and made him leader and PM, graciously overlooking his record as an MP and Foreign Secretary, not to mention his colourful private life. They then continued to forgive him, for not getting Brexit done when he said he would, for the avoidable deaths of thousands in the pandemic, and even for tax rises and eye-watering spending commitments which make Gordon Brown look prudent. But now, after two years of utter shambles in government, their patience is wearing thin, and the sharks are circling, smelling blood.
So forgiving are Tory activists that Liz Truss, former LibDem and anti-monarchist, who used to go on marches chanting “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out!”, was well ahead at the top of the most recent Conservative Home’s Cabinet Popularity table, with a resounding 82% satisfaction rating, far ahead of Rishi Sunak (53%), let alone Boris (-17%). As a position from which to launch a leadership bid, that’s not bad.
More significant, though, was the second-highest score, Lord Frost’s 73%. Clearly, his curious brand of diplomacy – shouting louder and louder that the NI agreement he and his boss negotiated is an abomination, despite it being popular in NI – polled well with members. But that approach has run out of road, and he’s gone: Article 16 remains uninvoked, which is just as well since there’s no conceivable advantage to invoking it, and the government is quietly backing away from confrontation. As Guy Verhofstadt tweeted, “Brexit secretaries come & go, but the same challenges & failures won’t go away !”
Conservative Party history is littered with the political corpses of those who fell foul of the unrealistic expectations of the Brexiteers. Frost is just the latest on the pile.
Which brings us back to Liz Truss. She is popular because she is seen as having done a good job negotiating lots of trade agreements with countries around the world, and she has done an even better job of claiming personal credit for them. Of course, in normal times, this would not be any great achievement; the agreements just roll over the provisions of the previous EU ones with minor tweaks, and are of little importance in trade terms, but they sound good. Still, at least she got them signed, which is a rare example of competence in a government not exactly over-brimming with it.
Now, though, the poisoned chalice of Getting Brexit Done Again passes to her, and she will fail. That’s not her fault, it’s just that there is literally no possible way of succeeding, in the ideological fantasy world of the Brexit ultras. They liked Lord Frost, because he denied reality with gusto, as their WhatsApp posts make clear, and they will be watching Ms Truss with huge suspicion. She was, after all, an arch Remainer, and the ultras take no prisoners. This is a group which even unpersoned Nadine Dorries, for the sin of expressing loyalty to the PM they created, making no allowance for the fact that she of all people should be loyal to Boris, given that no other PM would conceivably have promoted her to anything, let alone to Cabinet. They won’t have failed to notice that, in 2016, Ms Truss sensibly tweeted “Leave cannot name one country we would get a better trade deal with if we left the EU” and “I am backing remain as I believe it is in Britain’s economic interest and means we can focus on vital economic and social reform at home” and even “I don’t want my daughters to grow up in a world where they need a permit or visa to work in Europe”.
Given that background, whatever she does (most likely, agree to the EU’s sensible proposals for practical improvements in the administration of the Protocol, and quietly dropping Lord Frost’s nonsense about the role of the ECJ in interpreting EU law), they will be shouting ‘Betrayal’. Conservative forgiveness has its limits, and won’t extend to forgiving a sensible deal with the EU – especially not one negotiated by a Remainer.
Her main hope to be the next leader, next PM and the new Maggie, is if there is a contest soon, before the shouts of ‘Betrayal!’ get too loud. However, for all the travails of this most shambolic of PMs, a contest during the Covid pandemic, with Omicron raging, looks unlikely; meanwhile the Northern Ireland Protocol issue, stoked up by Lord Frost and with him sniping from the sidelines, can’t easily be ducked. Time is not on her side.
If you jumped on the Liz Truss bandwagon when long odds were available, now I think it’s time to lay her at the current odds of under 4/1 for Next Leader. This bandwagon is going to get bogged down in the same mud which has sunk all previous Brexit negotiators.