Liz Truss joins venerable UK tradition by resigning in disgrace

Sam Phillips

Features Editor

When Liz Truss announced her resignation as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on Thursday, much was naturally made of her setting a new record for shortest tenure—45 days, plus a lame duck period before a successor is elected “within the week.” The previous record holder, George Canning, died after 119 days in office in 1827, meaning Truss is entirely likely to halve the record. Numerous comments were made of her immediately embattled status, with British tabloid the Daily Star notably livestreaming footage of a head of iceberg lettuce next to a photo of Truss, with the suggestion that her premiership would end before the lettuce wilted (it did, and the internationally-discussed lettuce has a Wikipedia page longer than some early Prime Ministers).

Even disregarding the most significant public relations coup since the Titanic for a pointless cultivar of lettuce, Truss’s rapid rise and fall is notable as the fourth consecutive premiership to end in resignation. Conservative David Cameron resigned in 2016 after six years due to the passage of Brexit; his successor, Theresa May, spent three years attempting to “get Brexit done” before following suit; the tabloid-friendly Boris Johnson managed to complete Brexit and weathered a density of career-ending scandals worthy of his amoral blond demagogue counterpart stateside before being forced out by the resignations of dozens of ministers in response to a sexual misconduct scandal.

Truss, then, would seem to be just another participant in what is fast becoming a tradition. Her downfall became imminent more or less as soon as her administration began, with the mourning period for Queen Elizabeth II transitioning directly into the introduction of a “mini-budget” by Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng that so shocked markets with its wild-eyed elimination of tax revenues from the wealthy and corporations (during a cost-of-living crisis much like the one we are experiencing at home) that the value of the Pound all but announced its own resignation. Truss initially refused to change course, then changed course; a vote on fracking in Parliament was treated as a confidence vote by the Conservatives and led to allegations of physical bullying of Members of Parliament (including by the seasonally appropriate Jacob Rees-Mogg, a kind of far-right British Ichabod Crane).

When Truss did inevitably resign, vindicating the lettuce and most of the United Kingdom, reports frequently noted that she had remained insistent about not resigning right up until the announcement. This is a curious trope that seems to dog reporting on all sorts of resignations, as though we as journalists imagined that a politician would come out and announce that they were giving serious thought to resigning but wanted to give it more thought. Still, the contrast with American politics is interesting. There are structural differences between our government and a parliamentary democracy that I have neither the space nor the expertise to break down, and I certainly don’t have enough words remaining to thoroughly indict the office of President as a model of executive power.

But the capacity of the United Kingdom to force a resignation is something I must confess I envy. The one time we Americans successfully forced a President out of office, Richard Nixon only resigned after being told his removal was otherwise inevitable. Donald Trump was elected after openly saying and doing things that would have ended virtually any previous politician’s career, and much of his base seemed to consider his scandals to be features rather than bugs, as though racism, misogyny and criminality were the values they had been waiting for a politician to take up. The lesson politicians across the United States (and across the political spectrum) seem to have learned is simple: scandals, if ignored, go away. Democratic Virginia Governor Ralph Northam remained in office after persistently ignoring calls for his resignation in 2019 due to a blackface scandal. At present, Georgia Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker is successfully ignoring compelling evidence that he repeatedly pressured a woman to have abortions, despite having suddenly-always opposed reproductive justice during his candidacy; his documented and ignored history of domestic abuse seems to be of no interest to voters whatsoever.

We might take a lesson, then, from the United Kingdom. Whatever else one can say about their crisis-plagued government, they at least know when and how to push a failed leader out of the way. I, for one, would love to see an America where we demand that our leaders resign in disgrace rather than keep governing in disgrace or, as is increasingly common, use disgrace as a selling point for re-election.

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