Who hasn’t resigned yet? It’s politics in Britain

British politics have been so much fun this week that people were rushing home to watch the news because they need a good laugh. Our newly minted prime minister, Liz Truss, is now our ex-prime minister, although she’ll stay in office until her party finds some unfortunate soul to replace her. She should set a record for the shortest-serving prime minister in the country’s history.

She came into office not much more than a month ago. Then the queen died and for ten days history was canceled, so Truss didn’t have much chance to screw up, or not publicly anyway. What she did behind closed doors was between her and Larry the Cat, chief mouser to multiple prime ministers. So she’s done a lot of damage–not all of it to herself, unfortunately–in a remarkably short time. 

Largely irrelevant photo: This isn’t Larry the Cat, just some cat I saw sitting in a window, looking like it would prefer to be someplace else.

So much for the intro. What’s happening?

We’ll start at something vaguely like the beginning. When she became prime minister, Truss appointed Kwasi Kwarteng chancellor and the two of them put together a mini-budget that in hindsight looks like a suicide pact, although I’m sure they saw themselves as bold, courageous, and several other synonyms. 

The mini-budget involved multiple tax cuts that were heavily weighted toward the people with the most money because, you know, they have so much money. And they dress well and they donate so much to political parties. Who can resist them? Besides, they’d invest that money and the economy would grow and all the cash would trickle down to people with less money, who’d be ever so grateful, and the pie would grow.

Yes, Truss did say the pie would grow. Cartoonists had a glorious few days with that before life got so crazy that growing pies started to look sensible.

In addition to the problems inherent in the trickle-down theory–primarily that it doesn’t seem to work–a more immediate problem was that they hadn’t bothered to say where the money was going to come from to fund the tax cuts, and you have to at least pretend you’ve got that piece before you show the world your completed jigsaw puzzle. 

The pound promptly tanked, which raised the cost of government borrowing, and there’d clearly be a lot since they hadn’t figured out how they were going to cover those cuts. It also raised mortgage rates, because some 20% of mortgages in the country are trackers, which go up when the interest rates rise, and interest rates were imitating that imaginary pie.

Truss’s party began to turn on her publicly–first one Member of Parliament, then several, then a few more. It was an iceberg situation. You judge the size of the hidden opposition by the part that’s visible.

So what does a courageous etc. prime minister do when her party doesn’t like her bold etc. plan? She fires her chancellor, that’s what she does, and exempts herself from the suicide pact, and appoints a new chancellor–in this case Jeremy Hunt, leaving Kwarteng holding the record for the chancellor who spent the second shortest length of time in office. But since the absolutely shortest-serving chancellor left his position by dying, that still gives Kwarteng a sort of first place.

 

Confession

I’m condensing the events here. And I’m not necessarily sticking to the sequence. It was all happening too fast to untangle, so in deference to the speed of events we’ll shift to the present tense, even thought it’s all in the past now. 

Don’t think about that too much. No matter which way you turn it, it won’t make much sense. Don’t give me any grief about it. I’ve rewritten this damned thing too many times already.

 

The press conference

If you want to look prime ministerial, you have to hold a press conference, so that’s what Truss does. Surely that’ll calm the markets, the politicians, and that segment of the populace that’s still searching the fields where pies grow. She’s smart enough to know she’s not popular, so she picks through the assembled journalists like someone who’ll only eat the blue M&Ms. Blue is her party’s color, after all, and she needs Tory-friendly questions. She’s surrounded by enemies. The woods are dark and dangerous. It’s hard to tell Grandma from the wolf.

None of the journalists, it turns out, are her grandmother. One asks, “Can you explain . . . why you should remain as prime minister, given that you’ve dumped a key tax cut that led you to be elected and got rid of your chancellor?”

Another asks how come, given that she and the chancellor designed the budget together, “you get to stay?”

A third asks what credibility she has.

A fourth asks why not even Grandma hasn’t seen fit to show her support.

To each question, she blithers something about being determined to “see through what I’ve promised.” 

After eight painful minutes, she ends the press conference and staggers out of the room.

 

Larry the Cat

Larry the Cat is reported to have chased a fox away from 10 Downing Street, although I have it on good authority that Larry was only asking if it would like to be the next prime minister, at which point it fled. 

 

Facing the Commons

Since nothing gladdens the heart of a British politician more than making another politician (preferably one from another party) suffer in public, the Labour Party puts forward a question that, under normal circumstances, would bring a prime minister toddling into the House of Commons to answer it personally. 

These aren’t normal times, though, and Truss doesn’t appear, so Penny Mordaunt–a fellow Conservative and at one point a rival for Truss’s current, unenviable position–steps in to answer for her, explaining that the prime minister is not hiding under her desk. 

A new rumor circulates: Liz Truss is hiding under her desk.

Jeremy Hunt–new chancellor, remember–announces that he’s reversing almost all Truss’s tax measures. The pound inches upward. The markets nod dozily.

He reassures us that Truss is still in charge. 

A new rumor circulates. Yes, you guessed it.

 

Facing the king

Truss is announced to the king for her weekly audience and he says, “Back again?” and then, “Dear, oh dear.”

 

Facing her own party

In the week before Truss resigned, all you had to do was ask Lord Google, “How long will Li . . .” and he’d finish the sentence with “. . . z Truss be prime minister?” Although, in fairness, he might have suggested something different to you. He knows what you’ve been thinking. He knows when you’re awake. He knew when Truss is in trouble, and so does everyone else.

Okay, that was past tense. Truss resigned twenty minutes ago and I’m rewriting this. Again.  

There were several ways Truss could be dumped, but they boil down to these: 1, Her own party could force her out, or 2, the House of Commons could force her out, triggering a general election.

Or, of course, she could resign and claim it was her own idea.

Her own party was and is somewhere between reluctant and shit-scared to trigger an election right now. Polls suggest that they’re slightly less popular than Covid. One shows ten ministers losing their hind ends, along with the parliamentary seats they sit them on, if an election were to be held now. They include Jacob Rees-Mogg, Jeremy Hunt, and Therese Coffey, the health minister who recently told the world she’d given leftover antibiotics to a friend, enraging the medical establishment, which reminded us all that it’s not only illegal but dangerous. And unbecoming a health secretary, who might ought to maybe at least pretend she knows something about medicine, or at least knows enough to consult people who do.

To make up for it, she ups the ante and suggests that maybe pharmacists should start prescribing antibiotics, because who needs a diagnosis anyway? You just take some little pills and you get better.

But we were talking about polls. Sorry. It’s just so nice to hear that Coffey has an opinion on something other than the series comma. 

That same poll also projects that Boris Johnson would lose his seat and ass and the Conservatives would face a wipeout.

So no, the Conservatives aren’t in the mood for an election right now, and they still have a huge majority, so they’re in a position to block any move in the Commons. This means the first possibility was the one to pay attention to: Her own party forces her out. To do that, they have follow rules the party itself sets, which say the prime minister’s position can’t be challenged until she’s been in office for a year. Unless, of course, the party decides to change its rules, which it can do as soon as enough of the right people are in the mood. 

The last two prime ministers were forced out that way, remember. All it took was a threat to change the rules, although in Boris Johnson’s case most of his cabinet had to resign before he noticed. The point is, though, that they’re getting good at forcing prime ministers out, if not at governing. But rumor has it that they can’t coalesce around an alternative. Or any half dozen likely sounding alternatives. They seem to have poured all the fizz off the top of their beer and now they’re left with–

That metaphor’s not going to work, is it? Never mind They don’t seem to have convinced themselves that any living Conservative politician has what it takes. It’s one of the places where I find common ground with them. The other? That the law of gravity should remain in force.

Some are even talking about bringing Boris Johnson back. 

Nevertheless, speculation about how long Truss will last was so widespread that one paper had a live-streaming lettuce-cam, asking which will last longer, the prime minister or a head of lettuce?

The lettuce had a ten-day shelf life. It won.

Jack Peat, who writes at the London Economic, raised a possibility I hadn’t thought of: A new election doesn’t have to depend on a majority of parliament voting for it. A general strike could force one. We’re already in the midst of multiple strikes, and more are likely, regardless of who follows Truss.

“As we have seen this summer, workers are more organised than they have been in many years, and the worst is still to come as the cost of living crisis really shows its teeth. Such a large movement could force Truss’s hand, and in doing so, trigger the inevitable capitulation of the Tory Party. “

Truss’s resignation (now forty minutes old) makes that unnecessary but who knows what comes next? The strategy might still be useful.

 

Meanwhile, addressing the nation from under her desk . . . 

. . . Truss announced that she would lead her party into the next election. Several people near where I live said, “Whatever she’s on, I’d like some.”

Larry the Cat reopened negotiations with the fox, whose name has still not yet been made public.

 

Also meanwhile, at a committee of the House of Lords

Ai-Da, an ultra-realistic robot who paints, testified about I have no idea what. Someone asked how she produces art and she said, “I produce my paintings by cameras in my eyes, my AI algorithms and the AI robotic arm to paint on canvas, which result in visually appealing images from my poetry using neutral networks.”

Neutral is not my typo. The questions were submitted in advance and Ai-Da was giving a prefabricated answer. So someone of the human persuasion thought that particular set of words answered the question. 

And maybe it does. I’ve seen equally enlightening statements written by flesh-and-blood artists, and understood them just as well. 

In response to the next question, Ai-Da shut down and had to be rebooted, giving Truss a workable strategy for her next press conference–which didn’t happen.

 

. . . while in what passes for the real world

. . . the new chancellor made noises about a return to austerity. You know what that’s like: They start talking about efficiency and trimming fat, but mysteriously leave fat on the programs they like and take the bones and the meat from ones they don’t, leaving them not only less efficient but in pieces. 

Looking around the country, you might not be able to tell that we left austerity behind, but never mind. If we did, apparently we’re going back. Last I heard, the government needs to come up with £70 billion, and reversing the Truss/Kwarteng tax cuts will only cover half of that. 

Inflation was last clocked breaking the 10% speed limit, but necessities are up more than that. Electricity’s gone up 52%, gas 102.2%, cheese, 23.1%, prefab meals, 19%; milk (that’s low fat), 42%, and so on. People are looking for ways to use less and less fuel when they cook–it’s taking that much of a bite out of the budget.

 

It couldn’t get any worse, right?

Of course it could. Truss’s acting director of communications and key advisor was suspended for saying–or more likely, for being quoted as having said–that Conservative MP Sajid Javid was “shit”–or as one reporter put it, “excremental.” 

Folks, this is why governments need directors of communications. They know what to say in every situation.

The home secretary launched an attack on the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati. Tofu immediately started trending on Twitter.

Then she resigned, having held the position for 43 days and setting another record. Why? Well, she sent a secret document from her personal email account (apparently to someone who wasn’t authorized to see it anyway) and since she was on her way out she used her resignation letter to savage the government for not taking responsibility for its mistakes. 

But wait. She hadn’t quit, she was fired. Or she wasn’t fired. Or else she was and she and Truss had a 90-minute shouting match. At this point, no one much cares about the details, or at least the tofu-eating wokerati and I don’t and let’s face it, who else matters? She’s gone. Her replacement praised the new chancellor but managed not to mention the prime minister. 

Journalists began asking who was in charge. From under her desk, Truss sent a note saying, “I am.”

A vote in the House of Commons degenerated into chaos, with accusations of screaming, shouting, bullying, and more to the point pushing and shoving so Conservative MPs would vote the way their party wanted them to. This was possible because MPs vote by walking into one room or another–or in this case, by getting pushed into one of them. Apparently if your body goes through the door, it doesn’t matter how it got there, you voted.

The chief whip resigned–and apparently her deputy did as well. 

What’s a chief whip? The person who keeps MPs in line, threatening them with mayhem if they look like they might vote the wrong way. 

What does it mean when a chief whip resigns? It’s the political equivalent of your underwear spontaneously falling off as you stand at the bus stop on your way to work. Only your underwear’s unlikely to yell, as the deputy is supposed to have at the point where he and his underwear left the voting lobby, “I am fucking furious and I don’t give a fuck anymore.” Except the the site where I found that quotes him as saying “f***ing,” which is hard to pronounce, never mind yell.

Then they both unresigned. Or else one of them did. Or neither. Or possibly they never resigned in the first place.

We’re all a bit dizzy and need to sit quietly for a while.

A veteran TV journalist called the Northern Ireland minister–off camera–a cunt and apologized to the world at large, saying it was below the standard he sets for himself. I’m disappointed only that he apologized. Not that I know enough about the Northern Ireland minister, just that–oh, hell, I like a bit of swearing now and then.

 

Who’s next?

A friend suggested yesterday that we’ve had so many prime ministers lately that we need a collective noun for them. A disappointment of prime ministers? A desperation of prime ministers? Please, help me out here. It’s important and we need the world’s best brains working on it.

I’m writing this on Thursday, October 20. It’s now an hour since Truss resigned. She’ll stay under her desk, pretending to govern, until her party picks a replacement, which is expected to take a week–much less time than it took to choose Truss, but after the MPs narrow down the candidates the final two will be voted on by Conservative Party members, those wise and sober citizens who thought Truss was a good idea. The rest of us will sit on the sidelines.  

[Yet another update: Conservative MPs will narrow the field of candidates down and if two are left standing and unmaimed the choice will go to the members. If only one is still functional, that’s it, the decision will have been made and the members won’t have to bother their little heads.]

As for me, I’ve worn out several of the English language’s verb tenses and refuse to do any more rewriting. I’m posting it early–Thursday evening instead of Friday morning–before anything else changes. For whatever happens next, allow me to refer you to a real newspaper. Even if you’re not a fan, they’ve been a lot of fun lately.

A final word, though: Larry the Cat’s negotiations with the fox are ongoing. The snag, apparently, is that the fox won’t accept the position without a mandate from the voters and the Conservatives are understandably not interested in bringing the voters into the picture right now.

An incomplete guide to Boris Johnson’s downfall, or How to have fun with British politics

Let’s do a quick review of recent British political mayhem for the benefit both of folks who don’t live in Britain and of the ones who do but want a few extra moments to gloat: 

Boris Johnson has stepped down as prime minister and head of the Conservative Party. But Boris Johnson is also  still the prime minister and head of the Conservative Party.

Confused? I can’t think why. Stick around. It’ll all make something vaguely approaching sense before we’re done. 

Or else it won’t. I make no promises.

 

Irrelevant photo: Purple toadflax

What went wrong for Johnson?

You might as well ask what didn’t, but as so often happens he wasn’t brought down by the real scandals–the corruption, the lies, a Brexit cobbled together from high-end wine corks and journalistic fairy dust, not to mention heartless policies, destruction of the infrastructure, drunken parties during lockdown, lost elections, and the resignations of two ethics advisors–but by a sex scandal. And not even one he participated in. 

What happened was that he appointed someone named Chris Pincher as deputy chief whip, ignoring accusations that he was not a pincher but a groper.

Deputy chief whip? No, that’s not the sex scandal. It’s one of those weird British things that we can blame on history and that I won’t bother to explain.. 

When the accusations became public, Johnson said he hadn’t known about them.

Then it became public that he had been told. Formally. 

Then more allegations surfaced.

For the record, the people Pincher groped were male. I’m not sure if that had an impact in how the scandal’s played out. It would an interesting study. Or in the absence of evidence, an interesting essay. You could assert all kinds of things you couldn’t actually demonstrate.

Anyway, once all that happened, resignation letters from cabinet ministers and assorted less impressive governmental appointees began to flutter to the pavement outside 10 Downing Street like autumn leaves–first two, then more, than dozens, including, eventually, resignations from people who’d been appointed to replace people who’d resigned earlier.

At this point, any normal politician would have put their hands in the air and surrendered peacefully, but this is Boris Johnson we’re talking about, and it wasn’t until the resignation letters formed a layer dep enough to resemble Larry the Cat’s litter box that he finally, grudgingly, made a resignation speech that blamed herd mentality for running him out. 

Why did this particular scandal bring him down when other equally lurid ones haven’t? It’s a mystery. If enough autumn leaves fall onto a balance scale, eventually they’ll outweigh the political convenience on the other side. That’s the best I can do. 

But (see above; you’re supposed to be paying attention here), he’s not actually gone yet.

You know about Rasputin? He was a mystic, a faith healer, a self-proclaimed holy man, and a key hanger-on in the court of Russia’s last tsar–assuming, of course, that we don’t count Putin. He was assassinated by other court hangers-on who were desperate to get rid of him, and the story goes that he was poisoned, stabbed, beaten, shot three times, and finally wrapped in a rug and tossed into the River Neva. When he was fished out he was decisively dead, but he had water in his lungs, indicating that he was still alive when they threw him in.

The rug was ruined.

To be fair, it may not have happened exactly that way, but that’s okay, we’re not doing Russian history here, we’re just giving it a passing glance because I suspect it’s going to take something along the same lines to get Johnson out of Number 10, even now that he’s resigned.

And just for the record, I’m not advocating that particular set of actions, just contemplating overblown similarities. 

Johnson, they say, likes the perks of office. I can’t imagine he’ll give them up willingly. Already he’s had to move a postponed wedding reception from the grand mansion where prime ministers get to play to I don’t know where but wherever it is it’s less impressive.

Hasn’t the poor man suffered enough already?

 

What has Johnson learned from all those resignations?

The names of people he wants to take revenge on, although whether he’ll have the power to do them any damage is still up for grabs. Other than that, nothing that I can see. He new appointments aren’t much better than his old ones. One of the new crop (because he’s still the prime minister and is expected to have some semblance of a functioning government around him) has been accused by someone Pincher groped of asking if he’s gay, because if he is then surely what happened isn’t straightforward sexual harassment. 

In other words, she wanted to know if he asking for it.

Another appointee demonstrated the political judgment and sensitivity that she’ll bring to her new position by giving the finger to demonstrators outside Number 10. That may breach the ministerial code, which expects “high standards of behavior” and “propriety.” But that’s okay because  who’s going to enforce it? 

A third appointee doesn’t believe people are really having trouble affording food–presumably they’re using food banks because, hey, it’s free food–and compared taking the knee to giving a Nazi salute.

The big appointment, though, is to the chancellor’s job, since the last one resigned and is a front runner in the race to replace Johnson. The chancellor’s the guy who counts the money and makes financial policy. Or tries to, anyway. The new one is Nadhim Zahawi, and reports leaked out that civil servants sent out warnings about his finances. That’s not the same as saying he’s guilty of anything, only that disturbing allegations are buzzing around his head like flies around cowpies.

Wise politicians might want to be careful where they set their foot, although a wise politician is not what we’re dealing with.

An unnamed Conservative grandee accused Johnson of making unsuitable appointments so that he could leave a mess behind for his successor, but it’s also possible that no one suitable will take his phone calls. Or that he doesn’t know a bad appointment from a convenient one.

 

What didn’t happen

Under the current law, the prime minister can call an election at any time, and at one point Johnson hinted that he might just do that. Since his party has a huge whackin’ majority and polls indicate that right now it’s scraping caked-on crud off the linoleum, his party will be against this. As one article says, it would be “constitutionally very unusual.” And the queen could, if her advisers advised, refuse the request on the grounds that the existing parliament is viable.

From what I’ve read, that would be done via back channels, not in public. A message would go to Number 10 saying, basically, “Do not embarrass the queen by requesting this.” Only they’d capitalize queen.

 

So why’s he still the prime minister?

The best I can do by way of an answer is to say, Because that’s the way it works. Prime ministers aren’t elected directly. They’re (usually) the leader of the majority party, if there is one, or of the biggest, baddest party in the case of a coalition government. So if they step down, guess who gets to choose a new one.

You got it: the biggest, baddest party in the House of Commons. Which does it by following its own party rules instead of rules drawn up by anything as finicky as the government. So the process can take time, depending on the rules. 

Of course, since the rules are the party’s, the party can also change them at will–at least if its rules allow it to. If it wants to choose the next prime minister by seeing who can throw a rock farthest, I can’t see what would stop it.

Prime ministers can always resign effective immediately, in which case their party texts a temp agency and says, “Send us someone of prime ministerial quality, please. Must make public appearances and know how to wear a suit convincingly.” And then that person will run a caretaker government.  

But that’s not what’s happened. When Johnson finally bowed to something approaching reality and agreed to resign, he proposed hanging on until October, when the Conservatives hold their convention. 

To which the party said, “Not a chance,” but it didn’t roll him in that rug, so the date when he’s fully replaced depends on how quickly it can organize its replacement procedures: First the people who wanted to replace Johnson had to get support from at least 20 of their fellow Conservative MPs (that knocked a few out of the race), then those same MPs have (or had–I’m writing this a bit in advance of the fact, so I’m not sure if it’s happened yet) to vote until they’ve narrowed the list to two.  Then the party’s members vote. 

They’re rushing it as fast as they can and he should be gone by September 5. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. They might roll him in the wallpaper * and head for the river.

 

  • Yeah, that was another scandal. It’s breathtakingly ugly, it was very expensive (but then so was the rest of the furniture), and Johnson got caught arranging for a Conservative donor to pay for it. The next prime minister will either be haunted by it or bringing in a team of people with acetylene torches to get rid of it.