Kishwar Desai | Truss-Kwarteng face opprobrium; will rail strike mar London Marathon?
It is still summer and London is still warm. But it feels like the seventies when London and the country were gripped in a crisis. It was called the “Winter of Discontent” then. Prices had continued to rise and there were labour strikes everywhere. Let alone the railway workers or electricians, even the gravediggers and local authority cleaners had gone on strike. Rubbish was piled up on the street corners and bodies lay in morgues unburied. Or so the newspaper headlines screamed in those days.
At that time it was the last days of the Labour government, though few knew it would take another 17 years till Labour would come back. Now there is a brand new Prime Minister Liz Truss, the last Prime Minister welcomed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth just a day or so before she died after 70 years on the throne.
Liz Truss is the fourth Conservative Prime Minister in the last seven years. Though she has been in office just three weeks, she has already caused big waves (of resentment, not joy). The Conservative Party having been in power since 2010 has never been so divided. September is the season for party conferences in one or another seaside towns. This year due to the unexpected death of the Queen, the conferences had to be postponed till October.
This year the party roles seem to have been reversed. The Labour Party had a friendly conference without its usual quarrels and expulsions. It is also happy because it is a staggering 33 points ahead in the opinion polls. The election is not due till 2024 but the climate is changing. As to the Conservative Party conference coming up, there is a marked lack of enthusiasm. Many of the old regulars — Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javed — are staying away. There is a fear that quarrels will erupt if not from the platform itself but at fringe meetings. Everyone hopes Liz Truss will restore the shattered feelings of the party faithful. That, however, does not seem to be her style.
In some ways, you cannot blame Liz Truss. She is implementing what she promised during her campaign. Though much criticised by her rival Rishi Sunak, she has stuck to her plan to cut income taxes which she said would launch a growth spurt. That, in turn, was meant to reassure voters that tax revenues, even after tax cuts, will be buoyant. This would put the deficit up immediately but she promised, in the long run, the tax cuts would pay for themselves. She also promised to soften the blow of high energy prices, sending the budget deficits further through the roof.
There is turmoil on the streets. The popular movement “Won’t Pay” has brought together citizens who promise to tear up or burn their forthcoming energy bills. People are cancelling their direct debit arrange-ments to pay gas bills. A postal strike is promised as are rail strikes. The tax cut delivered by Kwasi Kwarteng, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer benefits those paying the high rate of 45 per cent rather than the standard rate .This open partiality for the better off has angered citizens even further. Even so, Mr Kwarteng is unlikely to be phased out. He is a rare breed of politician: a free market liberal black conserva-tive politician. It is a combination so rare that a rival Labour parliamentarian Rupa Huq said he was not re-ally black, a faux pas for which she had to apologise.
Apology or no, the Truss-Kwarteng team will sail in rough seas for some time. New governments rarely face such storms immediately upon arrival. The last Winter of Discontent emerged — for the Labour gov-ernment of Prime Minister Callaghan — only in its last year.
But this new government, or rather the old government with a new Prime Minister, has only two years to make things better. The voters may require much longer than two years to regain their standards of living. So the goodwill with which Ms Truss was elected by the Tory party may not be reflected in the country at large.
This weekend, London stages its much loved London Marathon. Even here the rail strike is likely to in-terfere with spectators who wish to line the route. But they will be there in their hundreds. Fear not. Lon-doners are well used to rail strikes and postal breakdowns. Summer in London is always worth a sonnet or two.
In the midst of this doom and gloom — everyone is hunting for even a faint silver lining in every dark cloud. Many had even thought that the visitors in the UK during the Queen’s funeral would give the econ-omy a bounce — and it may still happen. The pound crashing may just lure in some big spenders! No one wants a dreary Christmas — so let’s hope that the Truss-Kwarteng team either make this policy work, or go back to the big giveaways that were so popular during Covid.