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6 September 2022

Does Liz Truss have anything to say?

The Prime Minister’s first speech in office could have been generated by a cliché machine.

By Harry Lambert

A new political era has begun. Or is it ending? Liz Truss has today become Britain’s Prime Minister. I did not anticipate this during the early rounds of the Conservative leadership race, for one simple reason: I thought she was a dreadful candidate – and I still do. So did the British public when they first caught sight of her six weeks ago. In mid July, just 3 per cent of viewers thought Truss had won that first five-way debate between the Tory candidates. That stat may be worth remembering if her premiership ends ignominiously in what would be the first Tory general election defeat since 2005, or if she is deposed by her party before then.

Why does Truss strike me as a weak candidate? Take her speech this afternoon in front of No 10, her first as Prime Minister. It could have been generated by a cliché machine. The bar is low for any Truss speech and she did not clear it. “What makes the United Kingdom great is a fundamental belief in freedom, in enterprise and in fair play,” she began, before plastering together a series of leadenly delivered platitudes: “Of course it won’t be easy, but we can do it. We will transform Britain into an aspiration nation… We shouldn’t be daunted by the challenges we face.” 

“I am confident that together we can ride out the storm,” she went on. “We can become the modern, brilliant Britain that I know we can be. This is our vital mission to ensure opportunity and prosperity for all people and future generations. I am determined to deliver.” This isn’t speech-making, let alone policy. It’s the sound of someone who isn’t thinking. 

Compare this to the searing statistics that peppered Theresa May’s first prime ministerial speech in 2017, in which she promised a new approach to Tory government (albeit one that soon fell short) after the austerity of the Coalition government. “If you’re born poor,” May said then, with surprising passion, “you will die on average nine years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man.” 

That speech showed a recognition of reality. Truss’s speech did not. Her most important lines were buried beneath the inanities. “We need to build roads, homes and broadband faster. We need more investment,” she said, correctly, only then to declare: “I will cut taxes.” But the government cannot invest without revenue: revenue that Truss is taking from the Treasury by cancelling Rishi Sunak’s National Insurance increase, as well as the planned rise in corporation tax from 19 per cent to 25 per cent. The trade-offs of government are harsh, and Truss has not faced up to any of them. Indeed, she won the Tory leadership by avoiding them. She will, it appears, continue to do so in government. 

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The mood in Westminster among Tory MPs today was, naturally, not quite so defeatist. “It’s like having a new baby, electing a new leader,” said one senior Tory who did not back Truss but is far from disconsolate. “Onwards and upwards,” said another Tory veteran, who backed Sunak. “All good Tories should support her. At least we are rid of The Great Fornicator,” he said, referring to Boris Johnson.

A third senior Tory, on the One Nation wing of the party, is amused by the paradox that has already emerged at the heart of Truss’s government. “She’s appointing the most right-wing government in memory but she’s about to carry out the most left-wing policy imaginable,” they said, referring to Truss’s reported plan to freeze energy bills for every Briton at a cost of more than £100bn. “In a year,” they added, “it’s possible that it is the right who are most annoyed by her.”

But two Tories on the party’s right were both sanguine about the prospect of Trussonomics. “Socialism doesn’t work,” said one Brexiteer firebrand, “but Liz knows socialism doesn’t work. If she’s got to do something to get through this winter, so be it – though she’d better unwind it thereafter.” 

Nevertheless, the Brexiteer recognises that something must be done to cap bills, and a fellow member of the Tory right thinks Truss will prosper once she unveils her package on energy and nixes the issue. “Once people stop worrying about their energy bills,” he says, “that’s when Labour will start knocking each other out: half of them will be backing the [public sector] strikes, half of them won’t.”

If Starmer had announced such a package, many Tories would be outraged by the fiscal profligacy of such a plan, at least in public. Yet Truss’s plan has her party’s support. One MP offers a thoughtful answer as to why: freezing energy bills is not just an economic issue, but a question of national security. “Putin is trying to break the West’s resolve. Letting fuel prices rise unabated would help him sow social unrest and disorder here,” he says. “The government may well think a two-year subsidy will see us through the worst and Russia will blink before the free world does. It’s a gamble worth taking.”

[See also: Liz Truss has no moral right to be Prime Minister]

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