On Tuesday, September 6, Queen Elizabeth II extended her hand and welcomed Britain’s new prime minister to Balmoral Castle. Just two days later, the Queen was dead. For most prime ministers, even an indirect link to the death of a beloved monarch would be the most calamitous moment of their career. But it says something for Liz Truss that, just one month into the job, it barely even scrapes the Top 10. Not for nothing, #Trussterfuck has been trending on social media.
In fairness to Truss, the U.K. wasn’t in great shape when she took over leadership. Britain was still dealing with a post-coronavirus financial hangover, a war in Europe that was pushing energy prices beyond the means of many households, and all the various self-inflicted wounds of Brexit. But, equally in fairness to Truss, she has also bungled her approach to all of these things so spectacularly that you have no choice other than to applaud the woman (the same way you would a meteor strike or an injured player being taken off the field).
At the start of her term, Truss told an interviewer that she was prepared to be unpopular. Which was prudent because that’s exactly what she is. Her first so-called mini-budget—devised alongside and delivered by her chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng—was by all accounts the feel-bad hit of the fall. Her big move was to abolish the highest rate of income tax (effectively giving all millionaires an extra $46,000 a year), while promising to make up the deficit with drastic cuts to public spending. And it’s fair to say that this did not go down tremendously well. With anyone.
Most notably, the markets reacted to the budget by having a full-blown panic attack, with the F.T.S.E. 100 dropping more than 200 points, inflation surging so much that mortgage lenders began hauling products from the shelves, and the Bank of England initiating a $72 billion bond-buying program to counter its effects.
This was instantly reflected in the court of public opinion. Last week, a YouGov poll gave Labour a 33-point lead over the Conservatives: the largest by any party in two decades, and enough to all but destroy the government. Economists hate Truss, too, with The New York Times’s Paul Krugman calling her fiscal policies “deeply stupid.”
The press has also had a field day, with the pulpy Daily Star rustling up the headline Honey, I shrunk the quids. Even the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the mild-mannered British ornithological association, reacted to Truss’s ascension with a doomy multi-tweet statement about her destruction of the British countryside.
Compounding all of this is that nobody really seems to know who Truss actually is. This is largely down to the fact that she was selected rather than elected. The plan had always been for Boris Johnson to lead the Conservatives into the next general election, in 2025, but he was ousted after gleefully swan-diving into more personal and political quicksand than any mortal could escape. Truss was picked as his successor by a thin majority of Conservative Party members. Just 80,000 people chose her to lead the country. As such, she largely avoided the public vetting process that a candidate would typically endure. And, by God, it shows.
Truss is not a natural public speaker. She is notorious for her technical gaffes: mispronouncing titles and names, knocking things over, and demonstrating a general failure to communicate in normal human cadences. This revealed itself in an excruciating fashion the last week of September, when Truss responded to criticism of her budget by sidestepping the national media in favor of several brief appearances on local BBC radio.
Economists hate Truss, too, with The New York Times’s Paul Krugman calling her fiscal policies “deeply stupid.”
Needless to say, this backfired. Almost all the interviewers went in two-footed—“Are you ashamed of yourself?” barked one by way of introduction—and Truss’s panicked, pause-filled non-answers were roundly mocked by all who listened. The gaps between the host’s questions and her answers were so prolonged that some listeners thought their radios had turned off.
And then, at the worst possible time, came this week’s Conservative Party Conference, in Birmingham. It was held amid colossal Tory infighting, with several senior party members openly badmouthing her plans—“We’re fucked,” one M.P. memorably told Sky News—while a pollster-compiled word cloud revealed that public sentiment for Truss could be described by the words “incompetent,” “useless,” “untrustworthy,” “dangerous,” “idiot,” “clueless,” and “disaster.”
Truss’s speech itself was an interesting affair. She walked onstage to the unwittingly scathing “Moving on Up,” by M People (opening lyric: “You’ve done me wrong, your time is up”), while dressed in an exact replica of the outfit that Emma Thompson wore in a recent BBC drama about a right-wing demagogue whose actions destroy the entire country. It says something about her general standard of competence that, despite this, the speech was deemed not a complete disaster.
Truss rounded out the week by learning she has completely misunderstood the entire professional output of her favorite historian, Rick Perlstein, by Perlstein himself. He has previously written extensively about Ronald Reagan’s embrace of trickle-down economics, and told Times Radio that he was “flabbergasted” Truss had chosen these ideas as her template. “The idea that someone will come up across the account that I offer of the cynicism, intellectual vacuity, and just basic emptiness of the promises that were made by Ronald Reagan in this regard and say ‘jolly good, this is what I’m going to try for England’ is kind of mind-blowing.”
Her personal life, too, is far from unimpeachable. Almost two decades ago, she was caught having an affair with a then fellow M.P., Mark Field. (Her marriage survived the scandal, but Field’s did not.)
Plus, she was one of just three female M.P.’s named in the Conservative “dirty dossier”—a report that circulated online in 2017—apparently created to warn staffers against predatory M.P.’s in the wake of #MeToo. And while most of the list’s allegations were denied, others—such as minister Matt Hancock’s affair with an aide—have since been proven true. Predictably, some entries (“Video exists of three males urinating on him”) were far worse than others (“asks female researchers to do odd things”). Truss’s entry, meanwhile, said, “Fornicated with male researchers whilst backbench MP + sexual relations with Kwasi Kwarteng.”
Even if the rumors of an affair are true, this did not stop Truss from throwing Kwarteng under the bus at her earliest convenience. Although it has been widely reported that the pair formulated their economic strategy in tandem, Truss, speaking at the Conservative Party Conference on Monday, claimed the tax cut for the super-rich was all Kwarteng’s idea. And the very next day the whole thing was abandoned. It is yet another blow to Kwarteng, who has yet to win the public back after the release of incredibly bizarre footage of him appearing to laugh uproariously during the Queen’s funeral.
Regardless, this has to qualify as the worst opening volley by any prime minister in recent years. But perhaps it is to be expected. The Conservative Party has now been in power for 12 years, and it has spent that time furiously burning through all its available talent. What we are left with now are the dregs, and, to paraphrase one of this publication’s esteemed co-editors, they seem intent on shoving an elbow through a window as they’re being thrown out of the bar.
It is genuinely very difficult to overstate how badly Truss is doing as prime minister, but perhaps this will serve as an indication. According to several betting Web sites, the figure most likely to succeed her as Conservative leader is none other than Boris Johnson. Maybe it’s finally time to abandon all hope.
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Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the author of Bedtime Stories for Worried Liberals