As Conservative MPs and members descend on Birmingham for their party conference, every source of comfort Liz Truss might have hoped to rely upon has dried up. Labour’s conference went almost perfectly to plan, with none of the usual infighting or controversy to deflect attention from the crisis in Government. The Telegraph, Mail and Sun have not turned against her yet, but few pieces have been written to defend the chaos of her first month in office. The Conservatives’ polling numbers have plummeted in neat synchronicity with the value of sterling: the most successful political party in the history of democracy now lags behind Labour to the tune of up to 33 points. In Liverpool last week, there was serious talk of Labour acting and looking like a Government in waiting; this week, even impartial observers have begun using words like ‘landslide’ and ‘wipeout.’ Spooked Tory MPs, sighting the electoral iceberg in the mid-distance, have begun scurrying for the lifeboats: rumours abound of twenty no-confidence letters having gone in already, with a significant number of MPs supposedly considering breaking the whip to vote down the budget.
One wonders what Truss would consider a successful conference to look like. An old adage says that the first step of crisis management is not turning the bad to good, but simply preventing the bad from getting worse. The Prime Minister’s primary goal in Birmingham will surely be to stem the bleeding, offer mutinous MPs no further reason to plot against her, and above all else, say nothing which could worry the markets. The first hurdle came this morning on Laura Kuenssberg’s breakfast show: one not cleared convincingly by Truss, but cleared all the same.
Many on the left like to accuse Kuenssberg of ‘client journalism’, a propensity to take it easy on the Government and obediently allow their top lines to be trotted out unchallenged. Not on today’s evidence. Truss and her economic policy were hauled over the coals methodically, and the response from Truss was clear: no U-turn, no backing down. The 45p tax rate cut is to stay, albeit with the admission that “it was a decision that the Chancellor made” – perhaps the first public hint that Kwasi Kwarteng could end up sacrificed as Number 10’s scapegoat should things get worse. Kuenssberg brought up a graph on screen charting the cost of UK Government borrowing, like a child being presented with a piece of their own substandard homework at parents’ evening. Truss made it clear that this was separate to interest rates, independently set by the Bank of England. She returned to her stance on growth: uncompromising, in spite of any short-term pain. Unsurprisingly, she blamed the disastrous market and public response to a comms failure, rather than policy: “I stand by the package we announced, and I stand by the fact that we had to announce it quickly. But I do accept we had to lay the ground better.” For her special advisors watching on from behind the camera, the moment of greatest relief may have come when the BBC feed briefly cut out.
Kuenssberg saved her best question for last. It was, quite simply: “How many people voted for your plan?” Truss paused, before asking exactly what was meant by this. Yet she, alongside the entirety of her No.10 operation and every Conservative MP in Birmingham this week, will be painfully aware of this very fundamental weakness. Truss does not have the public’s support for these tax cuts: nor does she have anything close to a majority support amongst her MPs, and less than half the votes of all Tory members. In the pause while the Prime Minister formulated her answer, you could almost hear Michael Gove’s sense of vindication: later in the programme he would make it quite transparently clear that he, and by extension many Tory colleagues, would not be voting for the plans. Perhaps the very first decision Truss made in power, the point blank refusal to offer an olive branch to the ranks of pro-Sunak MPs, will prove to be the mistake which undoes her.
Despite the awkward pauses and the edge of desperation in her defence of the past four weeks, Truss can fairly view today’s interview as a job done. She walks out unscathed, her key lines having held up for the time being, and with the reassurance that attacks from the likes of Michael Gove and Rachel Reeves are already priced in. The worry will be that the coming days do not look like getting any easier. She has her MPs and party members to face, in tandem with constant press attention from lobby hacks who can now scent blood. For three more days, the Government must remain in survival mode, with the most unenviable challenge of all, the Prime Minister’s conference speech, saved for the very end. Yet for today at least, Truss was able to find the answers – even, after some deliberation, in response to Kuenssberg’s question as to exactly who has voted for her controversial new agenda. “What people voted for in 2019 when voting Conservative, many for the first time, was a different future.” They’ve certainly got one.