The queue for the pro-growth rally at Conservative conference, featuring none other than lettuce impersonator Liz Truss, started forming 90 minutes before she took to the stage.
It turns out that overseeing a historic crash in both the economy and your party’s poll ratings is not enough to deter hundreds of party members (and any journalist who could get on the list) from cramming into Manchester’s Midland Hotel to hear from the UK’s shortest-serving prime minister. Perhaps for some this was part of the attraction – rubber-necking at the car-crash former PM to see what new calamity would unfold. But the 300-capacity Trafford Suite was packed (apparently another 200 people had been turned away) and the reception Truss received was as warm as the overheating room.
Truss wasn’t the only speaker, in fairness. The Great British Growth Rally (which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as Bake Off) was very much a joint endeavour. Alongside Truss were fellow free-marketeers from the right of the Tory party: Priti Patel, with whom Truss co-authored Britannia Unchained more than a decade ago; Jacob Rees-Mogg; and Ranil Jayawardena, who served in Truss’s cabinet for seven weeks as environment secretary and has since co-founded the Conservative Growth Group (CGG) of Tory MPs.
Presiding over proceedings was the economics journalist Liam Halligan, who introduced himself as the “business editor of GB News” to a flurry of impromptu applause (the first of many for the troubled news channel). There was another round of enthusiastic clapping when Halligan announced that, yes, Truss’s appearance at this fringe event, shortly before Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s speech, might be “seen by some as provocative – and yet she was elected by Tory activists”. Rishi Sunak, who of course was not the choice of Tory activists, went unmentioned throughout.
In her own speech, in front of banners declaring “Make Britain grow again”, Truss made the case for “axing the tax, cutting bills and building the homes”.
She railed against the government’s rise in corporation tax and insisted, “We have to make the Conservative Party the party of businesses again.” She called for more oil and gas to be produced in the UK (“We need to unleash the gas that we are sitting on” – no comment). And insisted that she could deliver 500,000 homes a year by offering tax breaks to local areas that back development – a welcome message for anyone who has noticed the country’s housing crisis, but a bold move from a politician widely blamed for the spike in mortgage rates and rental costs that accompanied her time in office.
“Let’s stop taxing and banning things. Let’s instead build things and make things,” Truss implored. “I want everyone in this room to unleash their inner Conservative.” The applause was rapturous.
This rally was the framing speech Truss must have wished she’d delivered – not just to sympathetic party members but across the country – before she and Kwasi Kwarteng embarked upon their ill-fated mini-Budget (which Truss later signed a copy of). Her aim was to draw a clear line between the policies she tried to enact – tax cuts, radical deregulation, planning reform – and the challenges facing ordinary voters who rapidly lost faith in her. If you’d just given me a chance, she seemed to imply, then high energy prices, the disastrous housing shortage and the cost-of-living crisis would all be solved by now. The audience lapped it up. Would the country have done the same if she’d tried to explain her plan in those terms a year ago? Economists might have their doubts, but to the grassroots members cheering her on, the answer was obvious. The abject failure of the Truss experiment was due to poor communications, not poor policies. It is not an overstatement to say that there is a small but vocal faction of Conservatives to whom Truss remains a superstar.
After that, the energy faded rapidly. Jayawardena played all the familiar tunes (taxes are too high, couples should get tax breaks, inheritance tax is immoral) that you’d expect. Rees-Mogg, once a fringe darling in his own right, was left with the task of repeating what had already been said, but offered another crowd-pleasing shout-out to GB News. At one point he asked who in the audience believed the state was too big. Those who did not put up their hands were told “perhaps they’ve come to the wrong conference, they should go somewhere next week”. News for the Chancellor.
Patel was awarded the closing slot, and used it to deride the “doomsters and gloomsters”, to borrow a line from Boris Johnson’s first speech as prime minister. It was almost as though Johnson was in the room with us. He wasn’t, but Nigel Farage (number one on the New Statesman’s right power list) was. “A huge buzz at the Great British Growth rally starring Liz Truss. I think she’s going to need a bigger room!” he mischievously concluded.
Those hoping for questions or for a discussion between the esteemed panellists were left disappointed – the event finished half an hour before schedule and Truss had no more to say. But she had done her job: demonstrating to her successor midway through his first conference as leader that the free-market faction in the Conservative Party is going nowhere. It was pointed out, not so subtly, that the CGG is now backed by around 60 MPs – about the same as Rishi Sunak’s majority. The PM has been warned.
[See also: The Trussites are plotting their comeback]