Liz Truss returned to No 10 and an increasingly febrile Westminster this afternoon after visiting Balmoral to meet the Queen.
In an underwhelming and robotic speech, the country’s new leader insisted “brilliant” Britain “can ride out the storm” as she picked out three priorities for her government. One, to “get Britain working” by boosting the economy through tax cuts. Two, to deal with the energy crisis. Three, to put the NHS, which is struggling with Covid backlogs, “on a firm footing”.
Gone were the flowery, boosterish phrases of the Boris Johnson era; instead, Truss’s language was relatively plain and her tone almost detached.
“We shouldn’t be daunted by the challenges we face, as strong as the storm may be. I know that the British people are stronger,” she said.
Truss ditched the Thatcher references of her leadership campaign and looked to Winston Churchill by pledging “action this day” on energy bills.
She also borrowed David Cameron’s “aspiration nation” – a phrase that jars with the impact of George Osborne’s austerity.
Missing from the speech was any promise to level up. Instead she made a vaguer tribute to the “grit, courage and determination” of the British people and promised to provide opportunities for “everyone, everywhere”.
Even such a subtle shift away from Johnson’s levelling up agenda will, nonetheless, make Red Wall Tories who won their seat in 2019 nervous.
There are also uncertainties about Truss’s ambitions for major spending, after she pointedly backed getting “spades in the ground” when it came to “hospitals, schools, roads and broadband” but said nothing about Northern Powerhouse Rail.
On the energy crisis, she promised to “take action this week to deal with energy bills and to secure our future energy supply”. In a plan that is expected to be unveiled within days, her administration will freeze the price cap at £2,500 (she is also expected to keep the £400 help announced by her formal rival Rishi Sunak, in practice making it around the current £1,971 rate).
How does it compare to Labour’s price cap freeze? The big dividing line will be who pays. Keir Starmer’s plan relies on a windfall tax on energy companies, while Truss eyes more borrowing to be paid for later by taxpayers through general taxation.
Truss’s £90bn plan is expected to cover a much longer period than the six months covered by Starmer’s, however, which could prompt Labour to update their offer.
The new PM also vowed to cut waiting lists, but given she has not reneged on her promise to slash the Health and Social Care Levy, it’s unclear how people will see their doctor any faster under Truss’s government than they did under Johnson’s.
Vowing to boost growth via Cameron and Osborne’s failed combination of cutting corporation tax and paring back spending is a risk for Truss. And many predict the borrowing will not end with her energy plan.
After her address ended, an immediate cull of ministers began. First to go were those loyal to her rival Sunak.
Former ministers Dominic Raab (justice) and Grant Shapps (transport) were first out of the door. Steve Barclay (health) is out also out, with Nadine Dorries (culture) and Priti Patel (Home Office) having already quit.
Truss’s closest ally will be her fixer, Thérèse Coffey, who has been named as both Health Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister.
Truss’s fellow free-marketeer Kwasi Kwarteng is the new Chancellor and the Home Secretary is Suella Braverman, who is sceptical about Britain’s continued membership of the European Court of Human Rights.
As Team Truss takes shape, 10 Downing Street will have a 55 Tufton Street feel as the PM drafts in several aides with links to right-wing think tanks based at the London townhouse. Most notable is Matthew Sinclair, director of Deloitte but formerly chief executive of the Tax Payers’ Alliance.
Branding him a right-wing fiscal hawk would be an understatement. In the past, he has, for example, advocated a major slashing of public spending and abolishing the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Sophie Jarvis, formerly of the Adam Smith Institute, has been Truss’s spad since 2019 and is expected to stay.
Meanwhile, Truss’s chief of staff will be Mark Fullbrook, a political consultant who has spent decades working with Lynton Crosby, the election strategist whose mantra is “you can’t fatten a pig on market day”. This suggests Truss may still have one eye on a snap election, despite signalling that she would hold off until 2024.
Truss praised her predecessor for Brexit and supporting Ukraine, saying “history will see him as a hugely consequential prime minister”.
Few One Nation Tories or those close to Sunak have yet been offered jobs, and Truss’s core team appears to the most right wing in a generation. That could yet change, and it still remains to be seen how consequential Truss, supposedly the Johnson continuity PM, will be.