The lexicon is lost for synonyms for mayhem, havoc, chaos and pandemonium. The front pages of all the newspapers and their websites that led the way to this abyss have used them all up. Those who backed Liz Truss, those who engineered Brexit, those forever calling for cuts to the public realm – the Mail even whooping with glee at her catastrophic, market-killing budget – “At last a true Tory budget!” – shouted as loud for her demise, without a heartbeat’s pause for shame or remorse.
Truss is gone. The ideological hobgoblins she brought in and others of her fraternity turned on her. It’s not been “take back control” but out of control. Even two more years of this Tory disaster is unthinkable. Whether it’s tax cuts splurging on the rich, or the return by the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, to thumb-screw austerity, the country can’t take either option. Nor will markets be much soothed as long as the party that enabled all this and drove us over the Brexit cliff remains in charge of our weakening economy.
The question is whether Labour, Lib Dems (and moderate Tories) can drive a stake through the heart of her extreme brand of libertarian, state-destroying, Europe-baiting, austerity politics. Strike it dead so it never resurrects, so no one ever tries it again any more than they would advocate Stalinism. Look at where it has taken us: Cameron and Osborne’s cuts at a time of recession, when every precedent said it was time to invest, led to negative growth in household income, and the UK performing worse than any other country in Europe bar Greece and Cyprus. Post-financial crash, incomes in France grew by 34% and in Germany by 27%, while ours fell by 2%, according to the Resolution Foundation.
Look what the Tories’ Brexit did. The British economy fell faster behind those in the EU: it was 90% of the size of Germany’s in 2016, and now it has fallen to 70%. Our trade to the EU has fallen by 16%.
But Britain’s loss has been far greater than those whom Truss liked to call “bean counters”, with their “abacus economics”, can measure. Reputation is priceless, though it too is weighed on the scales of the mercurial markets’ confidence in our debts. No reputation manager can fix the shame of being laughed at abroad. Sober countries look on amazed at how the Conservative party – yes, the party of bowler hats, the Carlton club, black and white balls, garden fete fundraisers – has melded into the realm of disreputables such as Trump, Bolsonaro, Berlusconi and Giorgia Meloni.
Never forgive, never forget, Keir Starmer says. It’s the duty of social democrats to bury that ideology and remind Britain who they really are. They are the postwar consensus that Thatcher tried to uproot. All but relatively few are essentially the Labourites of Wilson and Attlee, and Tories of council house-builder Harold Macmillan, and Edward Heath, who guided us skilfully into the EU. They are not Truss-type revolutionaries. The permanent bright red line between the parties always showed up the Tories as protectors of the better-off, anti-NHS, anti-progressive social reforms, cutting taxes for a smaller state – but not off-the-scale wreckers like this breed, nurtured on Thatcherism and Euro-hostility.
Remember that Truss and Kwarteng only continued the madness of Osborne and Cameron. And hard years of repair lie ahead
The evil potion of the great Brexit lie, imbued with wartime myths of British exceptionalism, that wildly misled so many is now wearing off. Labour should seize the moment without fear to keep reminding voters what harm the Tories’ particularly pernicious brand of Brexit has done to them. This time the politics of the Tory party, in all its egregious forms, is not distant Westminster night-time scuffles in mysterious voting lobbies but an ideology that is doing appalling damage to every household, in ways everyone understands all too well.
Even if benefits are uprated with inflation, poorer households will suffer the biggest fall in real disposable incomes on record, wiping out all the gains of the last 20 years, according to the Resolution Foundation. Poorer households are about to face “a catastrophically bad year”. This Tory generation, from 1980 onwards, will turn Britain into the most unequal country in Europe, bar Bulgaria.
Now Tory MPs face even more painful votes than fracking. Fearing for their seats, they didn’t want their names on local leaflets as frackers, and nor will they want their names listed as voting for 10% to 15% cuts to everything: the NHS already gets less per capita than in 2010, schools already spend less per pupil, roads have deeper potholes, social care has all but collapsed – so will they vote for worse? Nor will that bonfire of EU regulations look appetising on hostile election leaflets if they vote for cuts to food safety, environment, working rights, clean water and air. Each swing of the axe of austerity will mean more revolting Tory MPs adding to the Westminster bedlam.
In other words, it can’t happen. This has to stop. Two years more will break everything. The Tory MP Charles Walker appears to have their measure. On Wednesday he called the government “an absolute disgrace” and railed against “talentless people” in the cabinet. Some may see him as a viable interim leader. But what we need is an election.
Labour needs to press home a deep political and social culture change. Make sure rogue conservatism is forever seen as an alien creature, nation-damagingly un-British. The Tory media – the Sun, Mail, Telegraph, GB News and Murdoch’s TalkTV – will find they must adapt: it’s too much to expect remorse, but they should consult their marketing departments about how far beyond the pale of most readers’ current state of mind they should go. The wise will row back from the mania of a failed experiment they urged on. Hard years of repair lie ahead, but these are different times, Keir Starmer times, now.
By Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist – The Guardian