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The tragedy of Truss is that she has a point

Does a phrase exist for the exact opposite of a Pyrrhic victory? That is, a defeat that turns out to bring success in the long run? One contender, from the annals of America rather than antiquity, is a “Goldwater loss”. The rout of the libertarian Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election was total. But it also seeded what became the New Right and the Reagan reforms. A small-state creed that was wrong for its time inspired those who would take Leviathan down a peg or two a generation later.

Liz Truss doesn’t have Goldwater’s outlaw charisma. I’m not sure she has Dan Quayle’s outlaw charisma. Still, as the waters threaten to close over someone who was never fit to be UK premier, liberals must hope that something of her worldview lives on. It is one with few enough champions as it is.

The tragedy of what has happened to Truss of late is that she has a point. In truth, she has several. The impact of a policy on income distribution is not the only test of its worth. Economic institutions are seats of inertia and self-interest as well as wisdom. Growth in the UK has been subjugated to the shoring up of national identity and other priorities since the EU referendum of 2016. The payroll tax rise announced last year was of a piece with a country that milks workers to spare asset-owners. Planning laws and other structural rigidities keep Britain poorer than it should be.

Truss is called a utopian. She is said to be on tenuous terms with practical reality. And so she is. But then who are the pragmatists? She is the one who wants to take Britain’s comparative advantage, which lies in professional services, ease of doing business and a capital city on which all the world converges, and run with it.

She doesn’t deal in the false hope that post-industrial England will become a Rhine-Ruhr of technical apprenticeships and midsized exporters. She doesn’t pretend the ancient mismatch in scale and wealth between London and the secondary cities will be “levelled”. Some of her predecessors did. Critics to her right and left still do. In her vision of the UK, she is humbler, more apt to go with the grain of the country as it is, than less liberal types.

A pity, then, that vision is just the start of a prime minister’s duties. Setting priorities, crafting policies, not handing big cabinet jobs to clever fools: she has proven dire at these and other tasks. And the victim — besides the general public — is the classical liberal cause for which she is a longstanding and ever rarer voice.

This is why I don’t think “tragedy” is too strong a word. If she stood for nothing, it would hardly be a problem that her premiership has crashed. (It wasn’t when Boris Johnson’s did.) But she does. She stands for the individual and other heresies in an illiberal age.

What a bad name she has given a good cause. Tax cuts for high-earners aren’t ignoble, if paid for. Which politician will go near them now? The Treasury and the Bank of England, while teeming with able and conscientious people, don’t pretend to be infallible. Who, after they all but saved the government last week, will challenge their institutional biases?

Nimbys and producer interests are part of the friction that, along with under-investment, constrains British growth. How likely is supply-side reform in the light of the prime minister’s toxification of it? Ideas can’t be judged through the “lens of redistribution” alone, she said last month. Who would now dare repeat that statement of what should be obvious?

Hers is a crude, undergraduate liberalism, no doubt. But don’t assume the alternative is a nuanced, grown-up liberalism. (Rishi Sunak’s, for example.) It is more likely to be the dirigisme of the romantic right. That has been the force in the land since 2016. It commanded, unlike Trussism, a mandate at the last election. Such is the party’s polling collapse under this prime minister, Tories will embrace the opposite of almost all she stands for.

Expect immigration cuts, then, plus the romanticisation of “making things” as against finance, and the fifth or sixth effort in my lifetime to perk up the country’s less well-off regions. Britain makes a killing from foreign students. Lots of Tories want the central state to intervene against even that.

Truss deserves to fall, yes. The pain she has caused mortgage-holders alone might ensure that she does. But the nation cannot afford her worldview to go with her. It cannot live on tradition and order. “Reaganism without the dollar,” I called the government’s programme last week. Gaullism without the competence, is what I dread will succeed it.

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