The chancellor ploughed on at the Conservative conference, oblivious to the incredibility of everything he said, though his party was imploding all around him, brought down by incompetence and moral inadequacy. “A little turbulence,” Kwasi Kwarteng wryly called the reception to his “growth plan”, which crashed the economy and sent sterling spiralling down and gilts soaring, costing the Bank of England £65bn to prop up pension funds.
Here ends the era of rightwing free marketeers and deregulators with their punishing austerity and inequality. Expect the prime minister, Liz Truss, to be gone by Christmas, with this chancellor ejected before her as she tries but fails to save herself.
To find the reasons why, look no further than Kwarteng’s speech to see how they overreach themselves and misunderstand their country. Far from a “distraction”, that 45p tax rate cut for the mega-rich illuminated the entire Kwarteng/Truss enterprise. It let everyone see who they are, and no amount of “pitch rolling” would have rescued them. Despite his U-turn, the richest will still gain 40 times more from his tax cuts than low earners, according to the Resolution Foundation – and now everyone knows it. Everyone also knows that they stand to lose far more than they gain, despite his over-boasted and unwanted tax cuts.
This proud austerian’s speech was shorn of the “all in it together” pretences of the more devious George Osborne. Abolition of the bankers’ bonus cap remains, unashamed. Unfunded tax cuts of £43bn will, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says, be converted into brutal spending cuts.
Of course, he never admitted what’s to come, when his failure to compensate departments for inflation and pay rises cripples the NHS, schools, courts, local councils and everything else. Most pernicious is not the worker strikes, as he has claimed, but his plan to massively reduce next year’s universal credit hike, no longer raising it with inflation. The real value of benefits has now been cut in seven of the last 10 years – but voters no longer back such callousness.
Wait, he crows, until you see his “growth” reforms! But those deregulations too will be wildly unpopular, from wild west planning freedoms, fracking and cutting working rights, to weakened controls of childcare, animal welfare, clean air, water and chemicals in food and agriculture. Not so much shrinking the state as shipwrecking it; not taking back control but losing it altogether, according to 75% of voters. This is the Brexit dividend, repealing every EU rule “holding our country back”.
Not even their great “growth” ambition is popular, Ipsos has found. People are not ignorant about its economic importance, but they’ve learned to ask “whose growth?”, “benefiting who?” and “to be used for what?” after more than a decade of wage stagnation while top pay shot up, 39% in the last year.
Deft U-turns need not be fatal – Margaret Thatcher did them – but Truss wooed her party obdurates as the most adamantine lady-not-for-turning, so what’s her USP now? She’s more like the end-of-days Thatcher who lost all political agility and acuity and imposed the same flat-rate poll tax on dukes and dustmen alike. That injustice did for her. Truss and her chancellor are Millwall: no one likes them but they don’t care, perversely proud of being unpopular with both the public and Tory MPs, but that way lies the emergency exit.
At the conference her party took fright when the great polling eminence John Curtice told it its popularity had collapsed even faster than on Black Wednesday, and it was likely to hand Labour a three-figure electoral majority. In its death throes, it will throw her out. But even if it installs some sober Ben Wallace-type, remember how after Black Wednesday, despite the economy motoring well by 1997, it stayed unforgiven for that economic shock.
She and her chancellor are both done for, as Tory MPs watch their seats vanish, their voters stunned by monster mortgage rises and teetering pension funds. Labour is keeping its head in an ice-bucket of realism, knowing it needs to outdo Tony Blair’s 1997 swing to win a majority of just one. But the Tories are right to be petrified and furious. Their credibility is shot, their time over, extinction beckoning. Every row and rebellion at this deeply split conference suggests two more fractious years ahead – this is terrible for the country.
The former Labour prime minister James Callaghan, not on the whole a wise man – “crisis, what crisis?” – left this rueful observation on his ejection. “There are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.” Labour might echo Shakespeare’s Brutus: “There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune,” or summon Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season.” Metaphors of tectonic plates, earthquakes, tsunamis and tornadoes blow through political commentary, because this is that moment. It’s all over for the hegemony of a wild Conservative party flown so far right it has taken leave of its senses and abandoned most supporters.
Watch the culture-quake follow in the wake of this end of Tory times. Tory donors shifting to Labour are just a straw in the wind. Wait for the shocked realisation among those raucous rightwing laptop warriors, too many to list, when they find their voices lost on the wind, their influence fading. The BBC, civil service, judiciary, universities, the arts, museums and charities will no longer quail in fear of these vicious foghorns. The Daily Mail has already departed from its readers: its splash on the “fiscal event” was “At Last! A true Tory budget”. U-turns do weaken a leader when she humiliates all the troopers she sent out to swear the merits of that top tax cut. Will the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Daily Telegraph and every minister be made to look such fools again quite so readily?
The people have long been moving on, says Prof Rob Ford. Covid brought out a communitarian impulse in people to protect one another. He points to radically changed attitudes to immigration, its importance as a political issue has waned and a majority now think immigration is good for the country.
Look how British Social Attitudes finds that the pandemic aroused people’s concern about inequality. Nearly twice as many favour as oppose redistribution from higher earners, while 69% think ordinary working people don’t get their fair share of national wealth (which is up 10 percentage points since 2019).
That is a changing Britain, kinder and fairer, of which the Truss, Kwarteng, Rees-Mogg, Braverman wing of the Tory party are wholly oblivious. As a result they are all destined for a long oblivion.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist