Tom Rachman is a Canadian-British writer based in London. His new novel, The Imposters, comes out next year.
Britain is governed by cake.
True, you’d struggle to pay taxes with a Victoria sponge, and bobbies are yet to arm themselves with sticky toffee pudding. But the ruling creed is unmistakable: “cakeism,” a doctrine of such stupidity that it is about to propel another right-wing mediocrity, Liz Truss, to the highest office in the land.
Cakeism – a nonsense of that half-eaten scone of a man, Boris Johnson – emerged from his Brexit negotiations, when the Prime Minister promised that his country could have its cake and eat it, too. Once the obviously false proved false, the cakeists turned wish-thinking into their guiding philosophy.
Only when the public wearied of Mr. Johnson’s chortling dishonesty did fellow Tory MPs topple him this July. Finally, the ruling Conservatives had a chance to restore seriousness to power. Instead, its members look set to designate Ms. Truss as the new prime minister of Britain when party leadership results are announced on Monday.
The 47-year-old does have an impressive résumé, having served in top cabinet positions over the past dozen years of Tory governments. Yet oddly, Ms. Truss betrays little authority on any subject, resorting to a shabby impersonation of Margaret Thatcher, even copying the Iron Lady’s outfits, while frothing about how Britain is just the best.
“We’re trendsetters, first to welcome brilliant inventions into our lives, from the microwave meal to Instagram,” Ms. Truss wrote in 2018, predicting glittering days ahead thanks to Brexit. “Britain is a nation of Uber-riding, Deliveroo-eating, Airbnb-ing freedom fighters.”
Since then, freedom-fighting Britain has lost billions in trade by leaving the European Union, and now faces a grinding recession. Price rises are so sharp that they’re the topic of panicked chatter across the British Isles. Tensions in Northern Ireland are back, and a trade war brews with the EU. The embattled National Health Service struggles to fill tens of thousands of jobs. Among G20 leading economies, only Russia – facing sanctions – is expected to perform worse than Britain next year.
Faced with this, what does Ms. Truss stand for? Herself, it seems.
When Mr. Johnson elevated her to foreign secretary last year, Ms. Truss took the promotion as self-promotion, posting photos of herself so often that she gained the nickname “secretary of state for Instagram.” Look: Liz Truss jogging along the Brooklyn Bridge at sunrise. Look: Liz Truss fist-bumping the chief of NATO.
As for the Truss ideology, clues appear in the book Britannia Unchained, which she co-wrote with four other rising-star Tories after entering Parliament in 2010. Britain, they argued, had degenerated since the “greed is good” days of Ms. Thatcher, becoming a sorry place where the innovator is punched in the face while the thug absconds with the loot. Their answer: slash taxes, cut protections for workers, and kick laggards in the rump – a process they predicted would “unchain” Britain, and turn it into a global capitalist buccaneer.
This right-wing dreamscape popped up a few years later as a key justification for Brexit, but with the “chains” that oppressed Britain now ascribed to the EU, with its wicked regulations about health and safety.
At first, the Brexiteers looked likely to lose the 2016 referendum, and Ms. Truss prefers winning. She sided with “Remain.” After her side lost, she announced that – come to think of it – she really preferred “Leave.” Of all the daffy reversals, to convert into a hindsight Brexiteer is among the least justifiable, given that divorce from the EU has added little but rancour, paperwork and cost.
Yet in post-Brexit politics, facts are a frailty. So Mr. Johnson marched inexorably to power, and named Ms. Truss international trade secretary in 2019, which obliged her to scramble around for replacements to the pacts Britain had previously enjoyed within the EU. Much ballyhoo ensued about possible deals with powerhouses such as Greenland.
Ms. Truss must now employ her talents to fix the wheezing economy, just as a major bank predicted inflation of 18 per cent next year, the highest in almost a half-century. A cap on energy prices shoots up next month to £3,549 ($5,403) a year for the average household. A typical family paying $165 a month in electricity and gas bills at the start of the year must now come up with $450 a month. When cold sets in, some will face a choice: heating or eating.
But Ms. Truss has thrived by resisting reality, instead fixating on her beloved plan for tax cuts, which she insists will jolt the British economy back to health, thus helping all. It’s trickle-down economics that have trickled all the way down from the Reagan-Thatcher era.
Recently, academics looked at what happened when various countries gave tax cuts to the wealthy from 1965 to 2015. The chief result was greater inequality, according to the study. Nor did economies grow much. As the humorist Will Rogers said, money trickles up.
You’d imagine that many Britons feel pretty queasy about the future, yet they have limited say in their own politics for now. Since the Conservatives retain a majority in Parliament, only party members – around 160,000 citizens – get to vote on the new leader, meaning Britain’s next prime minister is decided by 0.3 per cent of the electorate.
“Conservative Party members admire her ideological clarity,” explained a former Tory cabinet minister, David Gauke, who opposed the cakeist takeover. “But they are taking the most enormous gamble on her judgment.”
What, I wonder, does Ms. Truss’s judgment tell her when she hears tales of contemporary Britain: the emergency ward near Manchester where waits for a medical bed exceeded 40 hours, or the Liverpool supermarket where baby-formula theft got so bad that employees quit calling the police, and just directed culprits to a food bank.
People going hungry? Not to worry! Let them eat cake.
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