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And is there cake still for tea? Well, no

28 October 2022

What political philosophy has prevailed in Downing Street? Graeme Richardson follows the trail of crumbs left by Liz Truss

AFTER an astonishingly short period of muddle and turmoil, Liz Truss’s political career appears to be over. She left Downing Street humiliated and discredited. But did she leave behind her any vestige of the approach to politics that put her there?

Of Brexit’s many benefits, one of the most curious was a new word for the dictionary: “cakeism”. Cakeism is “the belief that it is possible to enjoy or take advantage of both of two desirable but mutually exclusive alternatives at once.”

“Wanting to have your cake and eat it” has been a popular phrase for hundreds of years. But, as a philosophy, cakeism picked up pace with Boris Johnson. For years before the referendum, he had joked in different contexts that he was “pro eating cake and pro having it”. After June 2016, this was formalised as a strategy.

Leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union created a range of mutually exclusive options. Leavers wanted sovereignty and control of borders; but they also wanted “frictionless” trade. Most notably, in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement, they needed to ensure that Brexit didn’t entail either a border on the island of Ireland or a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

As an MP’s aide left Downing Street in December 2016, their notes were photographed. They read: “What’s the model? Have cake & eat it.” This was the mood of those heady days. It was thrilling — swashbuckling! buccaneering! — to dismiss impossibilities as the carping of various “doomsters and gloomsters” (Mr Johnson again).

Cakeism worked for a while. It worked for as long as Mr Johnson was indulged by the voting public and the right-wing press. To “get Brexit done”, Mr Johnson agreed a border in the Irish Sea, swore blind he hadn’t, signed the deal, and then spent the next 18 months agitating against it. It was cakeism’s finest hour. Mr Johnson’s Bunterish persona, full of jokes and bluster and diversion, kept any sceptics at bay.

But reality could not be evaded for ever. And, in the mean time, there was a conspicuous lack of anything like progress or achievement. The question of what Brexit means for Northern Ireland will be on Rishi Sunak’s desk nearly three years after it was “done”.

After Mr Johnson’s fall, Ms Truss assumed his “cakeist” mantle. But she had none of Mr Johnson’s charm and rhetorical sleight-of-hand. For Mr Johnson, cakeism was convenient. He said whatever he needed to say, however fudged or half-baked, just to get through each day to the next. But Ms Truss actually had cakeist principles. She really believed this stuff.

In the Conservative leadership campaign (the last but one), Mr Sunak talked of “a return to traditional Conservative economic values . . . honesty and responsibility, not fairy tales.” Ms Truss, by contrast, promised tax cuts. Wouldn’t they cost us money? Won’t they stop us investing in public services? The answer was pure cakeism. In the long-term they pay for themselves and you get better public services.

There was even a new cakeist metaphor. Somehow, Ms Truss, by giving these tit-bits to the rich, would “grow the pie” as a whole so that everyone’s slice got bigger.

Similarly cakeist was Ms Truss’s approach to the cost-of-living crisis. When campaigning, she first said that she would never resort to “handouts”. But political pressure prompted her first U-turn as soon as she crossed the threshold of No.10, adding an energy support package to her already eye-wateringly expensive tax-cutting plans.


THE markets rejected her cakeism decisively, and public opinion followed. The Westminster Circus moves on. But there are real-world consequences: a hole in the public finances, a rise in people’s mortgages, more pressure on the poor.

And with Mr Sunak, is cakeism really over? He had been Chancellor for 18 months before he gave up his permanent status as a US citizen. It was nearly two years into his chancellorship before he realised that his staggeringly wealthy wife probably should not avoid tax as a “non-dom”. No shortage of cakeism there.

Of course, cakeism is not a phenomenon that Christians can pretend is entirely alien, especially for Anglicans, with their history of compromise and broad-church-consensus. Look at the issues of the last three decades: mission and maintenance; gathered church and parish church; evangelism and Establishment; women priests and flying bishops; the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ Christians and keeping communion with the global South.

Soothing episcopal voices come and go, saying we don’t have to choose, we can do both.

With fine words, prayerful listening, love, faith, humility — maybe we can. But, if a lesson can be drawn from the tragi-comedy of Ms Truss, it is that when opposing forces are held together in tension for long enough, a breaking-point will come. And we have seen what happens to the cake when reality bites.

The Revd Graeme Richardson is a former incumbent in Birmingham diocese and a former Chaplain of Brasenose College, Oxford. He now lives and works in Germany.

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