The Daily Telegraph
The new PM can’t afford ‘faint hearts’ in her Cabinet
It sounds like mere common sense to say that the victorious Liz Truss should now form a government which will bring her party together, but there is a pitfall here.
It is the lack of time. When Ms Truss’s heroine, Margaret Thatcher, first came into office in May 1979, she formed a Cabinet in which her economic opponents outnumbered her supporters. She felt she had to do this for party unity. Perhaps she did, but it meant that her administration almost collapsed during the economic crisis of 1981. She only just scraped through, won the Falklands war the following year, and went on to electoral glory.
Ms Truss, however, has a mere 18 months, so there can be no room for what Mrs Thatcher called “faint hearts”. All Cabinet ministers, whichever party wing they come from, must be up for the unquestionably bumpy ride ahead. The alternative temptation – also a mistake – would be to surround herself solely with chums and trusties.
Oddly enough, prime ministers rarely choose ministers on merit above all. They spend much time paying off debts to supporters and neutralising opponents. Appointing the second rate can make life easier.
Not this time. With the depth of the crisis, the sense of previous drift and the relative imminence of a general election, it will be a refreshing, vital innovation if the new prime minister tries to pick the best. No one has thought of that before.
The choice of Kwasi Kwarteng as chancellor will be the test case. I first came across the young Kwasi when he was a student at my old college, Trinity, Cambridge, and I was editing this newspaper.
I have seldom met a more brilliant young man. He reminded me of Boris Johnson, whom I also met first in his student days. He was intellectually voracious, immensely knowledgeable, but also amusing and relaxed.
After a bit, I gave Kwasi a column on this spread. It was quirky, original and wide-ranging. Possibly his copy was not always on time. His column was a success but did not last long because he left to make more money in the City. His interest in free-market economics was practical as well as theoretical.
Some colleagues used to refer to him as “the black Boris”, but in fact the differences between the two men are quite marked. Boris, however charming, was very driven and always likely to pursue a political career. Kwasi was the more detached, reflective, easy-going and apparently less ambitious.
He wrote a most interesting book about the British Empire, comparing six differing examples of British rule – some impressive (Sudan, Hong Kong), some dreadful (Burma). He had no political axe to grind in the book. He exhibited deep interest in the power of character and of individualism, for good or ill.
I was surprised when Kwasi told me he wanted a parliamentary seat. I saw him more as the eternal student, living chiefly in the mind, than a man at the centre of events.
At first, I thought he might fail as an MP. His enormous, slightly shambling form looked uneasy on the hustings. Did his way of thinking for himself also sit uneasily with party politics? But I quickly noticed a steeliness which grew with power, and a readiness to put his own character to the test.
As Business Secretary, he annoyed me by his resolute support for what I see as net zero nonsense, but it also showed that he understood the duty of ministers to defend their Government’s policy vigorously, whatever their inner thoughts.
Unlike his predecessor, the defeated Rishi Sunak, Kwasi Kwarteng is highly unconventional, unintimidated by orthodoxy. For Liz Truss to appoint him is a risk, but it feels like the right risk.
The National Trust is a vast membership organisation, but so constructed that its five million-plus members can exercise no power. Under its rules, the chairman is a “discretionary” proxy for those members who return their ballots but do not tick “for”, “against” or “abstain” on any given members’ resolution. Almost unwittingly, they thus pass him their votes to use as he pleases. He votes, of course, for the resolutions his board wants. As a result, the existing management can almost always defeat reform.
Now the trust’s bosses are trying to exert even more power. For the council elections and resolutions proposed for this year’s AGM in Bath, which falls on November 5, they have just announced a new “quick voting” option. This will offer members a single box to tick which supports all the trust board’s candidates and resolutions. No need to bother to find out about the issues at stake, is the unstated message: just toe the line.
This change is designed to fight off a challenge from Restore Trust, the group campaigning for the National Trust to return to its core purposes of heritage conservation. The board particularly fears a resolution proposed by Restore Trust for the AGM which would abolish the chairman’s proxy vote.
The trust’s “quick voting” retaliation is part of the deeper problem. Instead of engaging with the thousands of members genuinely concerned by the neglect of the trust’s purposes, its leadership seeks to make their voice inaudible. Instead of rebuilding good will, which is the single most important element in any successful membership organisation, it is attempting suppression.