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5 October 2022

Will Liz Truss’s first Tory conference as leader also be her last?

Tory MPs are set to give their leader until Christmas to save her position.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Division and U-turns have dominated the Conservatives’ conference in Birmingham over the last few days. Today (5 October), Liz Truss must face the music and give her first speech to the party as Prime Minister.

Chaos has reigned as her Tory critics have forced climbdown after climbdown: first on Kwasi Kwarteng’s cut to the 45p income tax rate, and eventually on the Office for Budget Responsibility’s delayed economic forecast. It has been brought forward to calm reaction to the Chancellor’s disastrous “mini”-Budget two weeks ago.

It has been the worst start imaginable for the Prime Minister. Her authority in parliament is shot – few Conservative MPs were prepared to back her leadership bid in the first place – and there is a consensus forming around Christmas as the deadline for her to turn it around. She will claim in her speech today that the disruption was a price worth paying, and that her radical plan will deliver economic growth and benefit everyone. MPs and activists rolled their eyes when reading the trail of her speech last night, with some viewing her as “finished”. “It’s a matter of when not if,” one source said. “It’s all about damage control now.”

Truss will echo Tony Blair, saying her government is building “a new Britain for a new era”. Her tax-cutting agenda is a departure from Boris Johnson’s levelling-up one. But given that MPs would reject the slashing of welfare she wants to push through – including the Commons Leader and cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt – the PM appears boxed in.

Much of the focus has been on Truss’s vision for the economy, but arguably she has already missed the chance to cement her leadership. She was the Prime Minister tasked with guiding the country through the Queen’s death. Thrust on to the world stage, Truss failed to seize that moment and forge an emotional connection with the public.

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When Princess Diana died, Blair recognised that good leadership meant expressing the enormity of the event. In similar conditions, Truss was not able to act as a conduit for the public mood. Despite several speeches and interviews since, that lack of a bond with ordinary people could leave Truss more exposed.

She is under pressure today to reach out to her party and the public, as polls have swung towards Labour at an even faster rate than they did after the Black Wednesday debacle in the early 1990s – and she has no credit in the minds of voters to fall back on.

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Tory aides have suggested Truss’s address will be short and, much like Kwarteng’s on Monday, put safety first in an attempt to survive the economic storm that her Chancellor’s rash and radical Budget has created. If those aides are correct, today will represent another missed opportunity to communicate that there is some substance behind the embattled Prime Minister’s otherwise seemingly empty soundbites. And calls for her to secure the mandate will grow.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: What could Liz Truss possibly say now?]