Week-in-Review: Johnson and Truss fuel comeback rumours

Mr Johnson traveled to Washington this week to press Republican lawmakers on the need to continue aid to Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. The former prime minister, who was born in the state and could technically run for president, has visited the offices of high-profile congressional Republicans to lobby on behalf of the war-torn country. But it wouldn’t be a Johnson away day without a high-profile bust-up. And, rightly so, clashed with the former secretary of state Fox News After the anchor and Ukraine aid critic-in-chief Tucker Carlson declined an interview request.

“We knew that Johnson was the one a coward – We saw during covid when she transformed into a frightened old lady, But we don’t know that he is a liar”, said Carlson, who I suspect has not followed British politics that closely in recent years. “Millions will die in the war Boris Johnson is promoting”, was another finger-on-the-pulse claim.

It was a very public clash on a US visit otherwise characterized by secretive meetings with Washington’s top Republican lawmakers. Among those Johnson treated to a tete-a-tete were Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Making the most of his post-prime political capital, Johnson envisions himself as Ukraine’s fiercest transcontinental champion. But critics argue that his transatlantic lobbying may have more to do with self-importance than Churchillian determination.

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Relevantly, Johnson is not the only former prime minister to take his politics stateside in recent weeks. He followed the confrontation with Liz Truss who visited Washington before the winter break as a further indication of his unbridled ideological intent.

Unlike Johnson, Truss has managed to avoid a public spat with a right-wing talking head, instead negotiating with Republican lawmakers and activists in what has been described as a “research campaign to inform returns.” Having failed to replace American-style anti-tax politics on British soil, here Truss was preaching to his converts – re-locking himself in a tax-cut sky. It is the latest sign that the former prime minister has not reassessed the health of his state-shrinking politics.

According to Politico, Truss was particularly drawn to the work of the Republican Study Committee, an influential body within the House of Representatives that served as the grand old party’s ideological anchor. In a meeting with Rep. Kevin Hearn of Oklahoma, the group’s chair, Truss said he wanted to create a similar caucus in Westminster “to put all their ideas into a collective group to hold the current prime minister accountable.”

Truss has released a few names for the new force in organized trosonomics. One, Hearn said Politicowas the “Conservative Growth Group”.

A few weeks later, dozens of Conservative MPs would gather in Simon Clarke’s parliamentary office to name a new group with that exact name. Former chief whip Wendy Morton, former work and pensions secretary Chloe Smith and former DEFRA secretary Ranil Jayawardene were spotted at the launch of the Trust’s Deregulatory Rebel Alliance.

Truss on Tour 2023: What does it mean?

Truss’ tax-cutting trip comes at a moment of particular testing for small-state conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic. Under Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak, right-wing ideologies founded on deregulation have been eschewed — both sides of the “special relationship” see economic realism as the solution to widespread stagnation.

Equally, transatlantic tax-cutters are struggling to find ideological champions ready to take on small-state responsibilities. US Republicans are still wrestling with the legacy of Trumpism, whose name has already been announced for a 2024 run. And in Britain, the post-prime ministerial activism of Johnson and Truss is imposing term limits on the nominal lead Tory: Rishi Sunak.

Indeed, the real story of former Prime Ministers on Tour 2023 is what it means for Sunak’s political prospects. For Truss and Johnson now appear to be locked in a contest over who can present the most prominent pretender to the Conservative crown. Each wants to be the main lightning rod for Tory discontent and, significantly, both have calculated new tactics.

Johnson thinks his best course of action is to champion Ukraine, including pressuring Sunak to send in warplanes. Conversely, Truss has landed in tax-cut territory as he lays out his familiar blueprint for shrinking government. But the tactics may be different, the goal is the same: they both want to exploit grievances within the Conservative Party because of Sunak’s preference for making fewer promises for others to fill an ideological vacuum.

But the interesting thing here is that Johnson’s and Truss’ visions of conservatism aren’t just different—they’re arguably in conflict.

Indeed, Truss’ desire to shrink the state does not sit easily alongside Johnson’s high-cost approach to defense. This is the classic tax-and-spend trade-off, already familiar to the Trus who refused to cut spending to fill the black hole induced by the mini-budget’s tax-comat.

Clearly, Britain has no political will to abandon our commitment to Ukraine. The UK also has no consummate media patron like Carlson, who will make the ideological case for stopping aid. The conservatives’ complex stance on tax-and-spending, therefore, seems to underline the parties’ different political incentives.

But the trade-off itself is arguably not the important one – it’s the politics. While neither Truss nor Johnson are close to a full comeback, their political pitches have a clear audience in the Conservative parliamentary group.

So Truss and Johnson’s struggle for political relevance is part of a broader trial for British conservatism. Ideologically wedded to fiscal discipline, Sunak would be the last person to square the circle of his party’s simultaneous calls for higher-spending and tax cuts.

But his political woes will continue, as long as Truss and Johnson are fueling rumors of a comeback.