Martian forward

In a week when discouraging news wasn’t hard to find – the war in Ukraine spilling over into Poland, Donald Trump hitting the comeback trail, the UK government gearing up for another round of austerity – it was heartening to see NASA’s Artemis spacecraft finally get off the ground.

We’ve written before of our disappointment that, well into the 21st century, lunar bases aren’t yet a thing, so I’ve got my fingers crossed that the mission goes without a hitch, and the project to use the moon as a stepping stone to Mars comes to fruition within my lifetime. I don’t think things on Earth are quite so bad that leaving the planet is our only hope, or not yet at least, but it’s good to have a plan B…

Blue midterms

A problem faced by all political candidates, particularly those operating in highly-polarised environments, is that the positions they have to adopt to get ahead in their own party can prove to be a serious liability when presented to the general electorate. This can be offset to some degree by a tacit understanding between politicians and voters that certain policies are for internal party consumption only, and that, once the election is won, they will be quietly abandoned.

Recent history has destabilised this arrangement however; the example of Donald Trump, who in office was even crazier than he had been on the campaign trail, seems to have convinced floating voters in the US that aspiring public servants should be taken at their word.

Thus the widely-predicted wave of Republican success has failed to materialise, and the Democrats have done remarkably well for an incumbent party at this point in the electoral cycle. Trump-backed candidates touting election-denial and abortion bans have largely floundered, leaving the man himself with a somewhat more difficult path to the GOP nomination in 2024.

It’s not all good news of course; the House is still on course to turn red, which will stymie Joe Biden’s modestly progressive programme, and control of the Senate may once again depend on the outcome of a run-off election in Georgia. The longer-term outlook is a little brighter though; Trump’s new vulnerability will embolden party rivals like Ron DeSantis, and the resulting struggle for the hearts of the ever more extreme Republican base can only further alienate the mass of the electorate.

That doesn’t mean that that Biden can relax about his re-election – the GOP will be redoubling its voter-supression efforts in response to this setback, the economy is still a potential time-bomb, and there may be any number of as-yet unknown crises waiting to break out in the next 2 years – but the odds on seeing Trump, or a Trump-clone, back in the White House are a bit longer than they were 24 hours ago.

Midterm blues

A couple of weeks have passed without a change in Prime Minister, and this relative stability has allowed my attention to drift from what is, in global terms, the sideshow of UK politics to the rather more consequential events on the far side of the Atlantic.

For a while over the summer it looked like the Republican assault on women’s rights would provoke enough of a backlash to preserve Democrat control of both houses of Congress, but as winter has set in the cold economic winds seem set to blow Joe Biden’s legislative programme off course by delivering GOP majorities in the House and perhaps the Senate.

Some commentators are predicting a descent into civil war should the Republicans prevail; that seems a little hyperbolic, or at least I hope so. My take is that the MAGA-fication of the GOP is a blind alley; the influx of assorted kooks and oddballs will fracture the party into a myriad of conspiracy-obsessed factions that will consume themselves in internecine hostility long before they pose any serious threat to the integrity of the nation.

That’s not to say that there won’t be a great deal of unpleasantness ahead, especially once Donald Trump declares his candidacy for 2024, an announcement that may come as early as tonight. Detaching oneself from reality is not a recipe for long-term political success though; as this year in British politics has shown, eventually the facts catch up. Whether the US electorate will figure this out this while they still have the right to vote is the big question; I guess we’ll have a better idea of the answer by this time tomorrow.

Boris bottles it

So, the Tories have the coronation they were looking for, as Rishi Sunak ascends to the premiership by default. Penny Mordaunt failed to generate enough enthusiasm among her colleagues, while Boris Johnson belatedly realised that presiding over a hopelessly divided party might be more hard work than he cared to take on.

What will PM Sunak have to offer a fearful country in its hour of need? It’s hard to tell, since he did not deign to put his platform before the electorate (and he has indicated that he has no plans to do so in the immediate future), but it seems likely that he will attempt to reassure the markets with another round of austerity. He may find the population less amenable to this approach than he imagines. Political and economic stability still looks some way off.

Déjà Boris

I guess an indication that one is living through a true political crisis is when things that seem inconceivable one day appear to be inevitable the next. Thus it is that the country is bracing itself for the return of Boris Johnson to the head of government.

It’s not quite a done deal, as there are plenty in the influential circles of his party who recoil at the prospect of Johnson’s rehabilitation, but he does look likely to secure the 100 nominations that would probably be enough to put him into a head-to-head contest with Rishi Sunak. Since the final decision will once again be taken by the Conservative membership, the body that saw no problem with Prime Minister Liz Truss, Boris may soon be settling back into Number 10.

Would this development make a general election more or less likely? Johnson can just about plausibly claim that no vote is needed, as he already has a mandate from the public, which would offer nervous Tory MPs some hope that they could avoid a reckoning with the electorate until their poll numbers were a little less catastrophic. Whether the country would stand for that is another question of course; I for one would be out on the streets should we be denied an opportunity to express our democratic judgment on the situation, and I’m sure many of my fellow citizens feel the same. The country would become ungovernable, at just the time when some competent government is needed to avoid disaster.

As has been the case on many occasions in the last few years, we are left to hope that those in power have the wisdom to put aside narrow interests and do what is right for the whole population. Since our experience has been that they invariably do not, we would perhaps be better to start thinking about securing the power to do so ourselves.

Detrussed

So it turns out that fear of the electoral consequences of ditching a second leader this year was not enough to reconcile Conservative MPs to a continuing Liz Truss premiership. After 24 hours of chaos notable even by recent standards she has gone, her 45 days in office at least giving her a place in the record books as the UK’s shortest-serving Prime Minister.

What now? We are promised an accelerated contest with a new PM before the end of the month, which the Tory Party hierarchy clearly hopes will lead to the coronation of a unity candidate, but which seems equally likely to provoke an escalation of internecine strife. The fact that the return of Boris Johnson is being talked of as a realistic option is an indication of how far from sanity conservative political discourse has strayed. Even if by some miracle someone like Penny Mordaunt emerges from the rubble at the head of a semi-united parliamentary party, it is far from clear that they will be able to either calm the markets or effectively govern the country.

The opposition, the people, and the basic principles of bourgeois democracy are calling out for a general election. Unless the first act of the next Prime Minister is to call one then this crisis will have no end in sight.

On borrowed time

As predicted in this space – and, to be fair, by everyone else who had paid attention for more than 5 minutes – Liz Truss has been forced into a humiliating reverse on her signature tax-cuts policy, jettisoning Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng for good measure.

Any hopes Truss may have had that this display of relative sanity might calm the markets, or quell the discontent within her parliamentary party, seem set to be dashed, as gilt yields have continued to climb, and talk of a challenge to her leadership has if anything intensified. The only thing that might save her is Tory MPs’ instinct for self preservation; few of them would relish facing the general election that would surely be demanded by the nation if they tried to impose yet another new PM upon us.

So I expect that some face-saving compromise will be arranged whereby Truss is allowed to stay in Number 10 for a slightly more respectable period of time before bowing out, on the understanding that real power will lie with new Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and other representatives of Conservative orthodoxy. Since they are exactly the people responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place I’m not optimistic that the lights will stay on this winter…

Truss twists

Liz Truss is making good progress towards her avowed ambition of emulating Tory deity Margaret Thatcher, but unfortunately for her she seems to have skipped over the Iron Lady’s glory years, and gone straight to running into trouble with an ill-advised fiscal policy.

Opinion in the press is divided on whether this development represents a fatal blow to the Truss premiership, with liberal commentators predicting she will be gone by Christmas, while their conservative counterparts try to play the episode down as a mere bump on the road to the libertarian utopia.

My take, for what it’s worth, is that Truss will survive this rocky start, and hold on until the next election, which I think may be sooner than expected, though probably not before next summer. That’s plenty of time to do more damage, like starting a renewed round of austerity just as the country dips into recession, or carrying on a cold war with the EU over Northern Ireland. Or she could abruptly change course on either issue, who knows? We should move beyond reacting to the confused floundering of the bourgeoisie, and just get on with organising to look after our own class interests instead.

Sterling work

Regular readers will know that I am fond of waxing nostalgic about the early 90s, when I was young and carefree, so perhaps I should be grateful that the government has chosen to stir up memories of that era by arranging a rerun of the 1992 Sterling crisis.

As I recall, that particular debacle came to a head a week or so before I took a trip to the US, somewhat curtailing my spending power, so I’m glad that this time around I’ve had my summer holiday before the pound started flirting with dollar parity. That’s about the only bright spot though, as Kwasi Kwarteng’s horribly misjudged mini-budget threatens to deepen the coming recession into a full-blown depression.

The gloomiest forecasts are predicting that interest rates will have to go up to around 6% to arrest the fall in sterling, with the resulting increase in mortgage costs set to hit the middle-class bedrock of Tory support particularly hard, so political reality suggests that Liz Truss will perform a signature U-turn and adopt a marginally more sustainable fiscal policy. Failing that, we might have a new Prime Minister even sooner than expected.

Fiscally reckless

So, after months of inaction occasioned by the Tory Party indulging in one of its regular bouts of internecine warfare, and a further delay for some feudal mourning rituals, today the Government finally got around to unveiling a plan to tackle the looming financial crisis.

There had been some expectation that newly-minted Prime Minister Liz Truss, free of the need to pander to the assorted oddballs who comprise the Conservative membership, would come up with something semi-sensible, a hope encouraged by the fact that she had shown some ability to recognise political reality by abandoning her “no handouts” approach to the energy bill emergency and adopting a price freeze strategy, albeit one financed by debt rather than taxes on the power sector.

Alas, it turns out that Truss, and her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, are even further down the neoliberal rabbit hole than was feared. The budget presented this morning, featuring tax cuts unapologetically targeted towards the wealthy, with wildly unrealistic projections of economic growth which will supposedly compensate for the resulting deficit, has not only dismayed the mass of the electorate who are not going to benefit from the abolition of the top tax rate, but also caused panic in the financial markets, sending the pound to a 35-year low against the dollar. Commentary in the press has been overwhelmingly negative, comparing the plan to the infamous “Barber Boom” of the early 1970s, an attempt by Edward Heath’s government to kick-start the economy by aggressively cutting taxes, which ended with the ignominy of an IMF bailout.

Truss seems to be betting that this time the trickle-down strategy will finally work, and that everyone will have forgotten about all the unpleasantness by the time the next election comes around. Since that poll is at most two years away, that is quite a gamble. The stake for Truss is her premiership; if she wants to wager that on a long shot I guess she can, but the stakes for the nation are so much higher that it’s hard to view this reckless course of action with equanimity.

All is not lost though; the scale of the crisis and the obvious inadequacy of the government response is provoking a backlash, as workers are forced into action to defend even a basic standard of living. The country is set to become ungovernable unless there is a change of course; one can only hope it comes before too much more pain is inflicted.

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