Wednesday 5 October 2022

Liz Truss's Tin Eared Conference Speech

By any measure, it's been a terrible conference for the Conservatives. Liz Truss kicked it off with her Laura Kuenssberg interview, in which she said there would be no about-turn on abolishing the 45p tax rate. Conference attendees woke up the following morning to find that it had been scrapped. And with the new PM visibly weakened, cabinet collective responsibility broke down. Suella Braverman took time out from her BNP-sourced rants about Benefits Street and dreams of deportation flights to Rwanda to attack Tory MPs who "staged a coup" against the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, amid suggestions the Tories are going to impose a real terms cut on Universal Credit, former contender Penny Mordaunt said that benefits should be uprated in line with inflation. A position shared by most Tories who were prepared to rebel over 45p tax. And the ghost of recent Tory pasts, Nadine Dorries, warned Truss that she'd better not mess with Boris's legacy or there will be hell to pay.

Simmering rebellions and senior ministers backbiting and musing aloud never ends well. It reminds me of the first few months of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and how senior shadow cabinet figures would do as they pleased. Except Corbyn kept the unions and the members onside, which meant when Labour MPs moved to no confidence him that wider support remained and saved his bacon. Truss has no such luxury. She came out comfortably ahead of Rish! Sunak among the members, but not only was she not the MPs' choice, among the Tory selectorate she trailed her recently departed and umpteenth disgraced predecessor. Even as she was toasting victory, her tenure started off on unsure ground.

Given the tumult she has unleashed, Truss had to pull something special out of the bag. A rabbit that might have excited the press, or a dazzling bauble getting the Tory faithful cooing in wonder. A big ask, and one as limited a politician as the Prime Minister could never have delivered. It wasn't that Truss's speech was bad by Tory party standards, it just didn't rise above her dial-it-in stump speeches during the leadership contest. Apart from the interruption of Greenpeace campaigners ("Get them removed!" mumbled Truss from the podium), her speech was memorable for two things. First we had her characterisation of her opponents. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, "militant trade unions", "vested interests dressed up as think tanks"(?), Brexit deniers, Extinction Rebellion, and "talking heads" are part of the "anti-growth coalition". These are the wrong doers Truss's Tories have pitched into battle against becase, lest we forget, her brasstacks Toryism has nothing to do with enriching the rich and is all about conjuring boom town Beijing-style growth figures. Unfortunately for Truss, the boss of Shell chimed in after her speech and practically begged the government to tax his firm. Not all members of the ruling class are so blinkered about the real damage Truss's sectional project could cause their immediate and long-term interests.

The second take away were the "tough times". Disappointingly, with the going getting tough she chose not to quote Billy Ocean and went with the altogether blander "we need to step up." It's a point worth recalling that the "stormy days" we saw last week were not the consequences of Vladimir Putin's faltering war in Ukraine, or the Fed mucking around with American interest rates. They were triggered by Kwasi Kwarteng's speech and their shared ambition to a) use state borrowing to shield energy company profits, and b) use state borrowing to give the rich a tax cut and protect the corporate balance sheet. The near cataclysm visited on pension funds, the inflationary pressures they stoked, and the interest rate hike they forced the Bank of England into immediately visited a vision of electoral doom upon them. Truss talks about tough times now, but a little over a month ago she was going round the country offering jam today and jam tomorrow while Sunak peddled (and subsequently failed with) a Tory politics that was anchored in some aspects of political reality. What Truss is doing is trying to mobilise a masochistic affection for toughness and penury among Tory and Tory-adjacent voters. The problem is she's forgot that the sacrifices Tory voters like to see are those borne by other people. And that millions of them are feeling the pinch. To start off it was the energy price increase, and thanks to Truss's handling of the politics she's replaced a cost of living crisis exacerbated by gas and electricity bulls with a cost of living crisis exacerbated by mortgage rates and inflation.

If Truss's speech taught us one thing, it's that she's learned nothing from her near death experience. With Westminster resuming next week, tough times are guaranteed. But on this occasion, the agonies won't be sparing of their architects.

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