The smart money, it turns out, was on the head of lettuce.
You will recall that last week I noted British bookies were taking bets on which would last longer: the tenure of Liz Truss as British Prime Minister, or an iceberg lettuce. The Daily Star set up a display featuring a picture of Truss and the leafy green vegetable in question, after Truss’s mini-budget caused economic chaos in Blighty and she had to perform a series of embarrassing U-turns, which included sacking her chancellor (minister of finance) and appointing a replacement, who promptly scrapped almost everything in the budget.
When she leaves on Oct. 25 she will have been in office for 50 days, smashing the previous record for shortest tenancy at 10 Downing Street. That was held by George Canning, who became Prime Minister in April 1827 and held the post for 119 days before dying of tuberculosis on Aug. 8, 1827.
I’ve read a lot about 19th century British history, and had never heard of Canning, so looked him up on Wikipedia, where I learned that there is much speculation about what his legacy could have been. One commentator –described Canning as the government’s “ablest minister”, “brilliant and colourful”, a man of “biting wit” and a tremendous orator who had “immense confidence in his own ability”.
That last point is about the only thing Canning and Truss seem to have had in common, other than their truncated stays at No. 10. Truss had such immense confidence in her own ability that she ignored the advice of economists and government advisers — indeed, she fired the senior civil servant at the Treasury — and would not allow her proposed mini-budget to be vetted by the fiscal watchdog her own party had created in 2010. The budget cut taxes for the wealthy and for corporations, with a vague promise to fund these tax cuts by borrowing massive amounts of money amounting to tens of billions of pounds, and the chancellor said there were more tax cuts to come.
The result, as anyone with the ability to do basic math could have predicted, was economic amateur hour. Taxes are any government’s primary source of funding, so reducing them should be balanced by savings elsewhere: government staff cuts and hiring freezes, increased efficiencies, cutting services, or some mix of all the above. By failing to announce any of this, Truss plunged the British economy into chaotic free fall, and even though the budget has been scrapped, the damage has been done. Britain as a country will now face a rise in the cost of borrowing — the so-called “moron premium” — while hundreds of thousands of individual Brits have seen huge increases to their mortgage costs.
It’s what happens when ideology runs up against reality: reality always wins. It’s also what happens when a populist politician who rails against the “experts” decides she understands something — in this case economics — better than people who have studied it for years.
But wait, there’s more! Truss’s resignation sparked the very real possibility that the man she replaced when he resigned in disgrace earlier this summer, Boris Johnson, might very well replace her as the new/old Prime Minister, lurching back to life like the villain in a horror movie who appears to be dead but isn’t. Yes: BoJo, who was on his third vacation since being forced out of Downing Street in July, heroically cut short his holiday and rushed back to Blighty to offer himself as the nation’s salvation.
Unfortunately for him, the nation — or at least most of the 357 Conservative MPs who were set to pick the next leader — politely declined, and installed Rishi Sunak instead. I presume the head of lettuce was unavailable, and Sunak — who at least presents as a grown-up — was the next best choice. Will he appoint the lettuce to a cabinet post? The way things are going in British politics, I wouldn’t bet against it.