Australia: Tories ‘completely lost’ after Truss tax U-turn, says Alexander Downer

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Birmingham: Britain’s new prime minister Liz Truss will lead the Tories to a loss because she has turned her back on conservative economics and the party has lost its way, Alexander Downer says.

In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on the sidelines of the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, Australia’s longest-serving foreign minister said he could see no path to victory for Truss following her humiliating backdown on granting the country’s wealthiest a huge tax cut.

Britain’s Prime Minister Liz Truss. © AP Britain’s Prime Minister Liz Truss.

“She’s only been the leader for three weeks, and already she’s done a major U-turn. Personally, I think that’s hugely damaging because it undermines public confidence in you; that you didn’t really think this through, did you?” he said.

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“This is a sign that after just three weeks she is going to find it perilously difficult to manage the party.”

Truss was forced to back down, despite declaring less than 24 hours earlier that she was absolutely committed to the tax cut, because she faced a rebellion on the floor of the House of Commons, where ex-cabinet ministers had warned enough Tory MPs would vote with Labour to scuttle the tax cut.

Downer, a former high commissioner to the UK, said Truss had “blown her popularity after three weeks” and shredded her attempts to pose as a “kind-of latter-day Thatcher; a lady who wasn’t for turning”.

He said that Truss’ unfunded tax and spending package, which forced the Bank of England to buy long-term government debt to save the pound from crashing further and prop up pension funds which were on the verge of collapse, meant that every interest rate rise would be blamed on the government.

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“The Conservative Party, because they have unfunded tax cuts and spending, are going to be blamed for every 25 basis points increase in interest rates,” he said.

“The party’s completely lost now. It’s hard to see a pathway to victory for them.”

Former foreign minister and high commissioner to the UK Alexander Downer. © Domenico Pugliese Former foreign minister and high commissioner to the UK Alexander Downer.

Lesson for Liberals

Downer said he doubted Boris Johnson could have led the Conservatives to another victory, despite securing an 80-seat majority in 2019 against Jeremy Corbyn.

However, the elevation of Truss into Number 10 showed why Liberal Party members in Australia should never be allowed to choose the leader, Downer said.

Asked if Tory members chose the wrong candidate when given the choice between Truss and former chancellor Rishi Sunak – widely seen as the moderate candidate – Downer praised Sunak’s credentials.

“I personally think Rishi Sunak is a stunning intellect. [He’s] a bit inexperienced, he needed a bit more experience to be a really successful leader, but he would have grown into it,” he said.

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“That’s clearly what the parliamentary party thought.

“So one of the lessons here is always let the parliamentary party choose the leader because they’re the people who actually know the candidate and know them personally, whereas the membership at large only know them as television personalities. That’s not enough, that doesn’t tell you how they’re going to behave in the future.”

Downer said this was a lesson for Australia where MPs still decide Liberal Party leaders, in contrast to Labor which has given members a say since leadership rule changes introduced by Kevin Rudd, who wanted to make it harder for factional bosses to fire prime ministers.

“One of the lessons for the Liberal Party in Australia is: don’t think of handing over the election of the leader of the party to the membership at large, keep it in the parliamentary party,” he said.

Downer said it also showed that swapping leaders rarely provided the solution MPs were seeking.

“I’ve always that thought that,” he said.

“I was confronted with the proposition more than anybody else in the Howard government, with the proposition, should we roll John Howard in the lead-up to the 2007 election.

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“And I thought the public put him in and the public put him in several times, I don’t think they would have appreciated us just cutting him down.

“He’d been an incredibly successful prime minister, but it looked as though he was going to lose the election. But throwing out a prime minister? That is a huge ask, and it leads to incredible bitterness.”

Howard led the Coalition to a loss and became the first prime minister since Stanley Bruce to lose his own seat in 2007, when Rudd was swept to power.

But Rudd’s tenure was short-lived. His chaotic governing style prompted the caucus to remove him as prime minister and replace him with Julia Gillard.

Rudd dogged her prime ministership until she too was eventually deposed and he was reinstated. Rudd then introduced rules to make it harder to remove Labor leaders, and the party’s leadership has remained stable ever since, with Bill Shorten leading the party to two defeats before Anthony Albanese won a two-seat majority in May.

Albanese ousted Scott Morrison, who had replaced Malcolm Turnbull in the job, who in turn had knifed Tony Abbott.

Downer said those changes had damaged both parties’ credibility in the public’s eyes.

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