Liz Truss today, 5 October, tried to defeat journalism. The Prime Minister’s first Conservative conference speech as leader was so content-free that reporters were left unsure of what to report.
Her address was a predictable 34-minute indictment of all those opposed to the government, who she has given a new label – “the anti-growth coalition” – and it contained no new policy announcements (which many Tory MPs were probably relieved about).
The new leader, whose party has been in power for 12 years, tried to shore up her position by claiming Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP were the ones holding the country back, and that she would “build a new Britain for a new era”. There was no mention, of course, how growth has been partly thwarted by Brexit – a policy championed by many in her cabinet.
The most powerful person in the country, who worked for the energy giant Shell and lives in a Greenwich townhouse, also brazenly attempted to paint her critics as elitists, who “taxi from north London to the BBC studio to dismiss anyone challenging the status quo”.
This was a safety-first speech, which mashed together familiar lines from press releases sent out during the interminably long Conservative leadership race. The only brief moment of excitement came not from the stage but from Greenpeace protesters, who asked the question posed by many people won over by Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” agenda in 2019: “Who voted for this?”
Truss dismissed them as being those who “prefer protesting to doing”. And Tory activists may be comforted by a leader who played the old hits – cutting “red tape” on business, junking all remaining EU laws, slamming “militant unions” on strike.
But Truss’s problem is not with the Tory rank and file. It’s with the MPs back in parliament who are girding themselves for battle over the not-so-mini-Budget and the welfare cuts Truss is committed to. Perhaps mercifully for the Prime Minister, the vast majority of Tory MPs avoided Birmingham.
Truss allies dismiss this week’s rows as “conference ricochet” and insist they are not fatal to her leadership. But it seems obvious how she will handle opposition to policies such as ending the ban on fracking and new grammar schools: despite welcoming comparisons to the “Iron Lady”, the weakened PM will be forced into a series of U-turns.
By saying almost nothing – she listed her priorities as “growth, growth, growth”, and claimed the “enemies of enterprise” were “wrong, wrong, wrong” – Truss has survived for today. Whether she can for much longer is another question altogether.