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8 September 2022

Liz Truss’s self-confidence could soon leave Keir Starmer under more pressure

The Prime Minister’s desire for a full-scale ideological fight means the Labour leader will be forced to review his approach.

By Andrew Marr

Strange days. We have a new Prime Minister, a new cabinet, with all the policy energy, the media abasement and the official rom-pom-pom that goes with that. In her first few days Liz Truss showed a bigger skill set and a sharper philosophical direction than was widely expected.

She has not, let’s put it this way, been burdened with an excessive quantity of self-doubt. She doesn’t speak well on formal occasions, but she was sharp and fast-footed in the Commons, reminding old hands of the first female prime minister.

Truss looked completely at ease and self-confident. Don’t forget how experienced she is as a minister. There has been some disgraceful misogyny directed at her, and indeed her close ally and deputy Thérèse Coffey, by parts of the liberal left. And yet she is the leader of small-government politics at a time when the country wants and needs big government. Go figure.

There is much, and genuine, anger in the Conservative parliamentary party about Truss’s cabinet of friends and ideological allies. One senior minister from the old regime told me: “She’s got a united cabinet, and that’s a strength. But she now has a very divided party here, and that isn’t.”

Even the first part of that assessment isn’t necessarily true. Margaret Thatcher’s former foreign policy adviser Charles Powell, who was at her side all the way through, told me she always wanted the best cabinet ministers available; her readiness to have talented opponents at the cabinet table, and therefore her relish for vigorous argument around it, was a source of resilience and strength.

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Does Truss think likewise? As it happens, there are good reasons to think her cabinet is a stronger one than Boris Johnson’s. Kwasi Kwarteng, James Cleverly, Coffey and Ben Wallace are a formidable quartet, though there are plenty of weak links too.

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For now, I think, there will be little rebellion. It’s too early. Even the most anti-Truss MPs understand that party members would turn on them if they showed disloyalty during a new leader’s honeymoon. “Not yet,” is a phrase I’ve heard used repeatedly, with a hint of menace.

[See also: What Liz Truss means for Labour]

What this means is that Truss would be wise to avoid trying to move ahead on too many fronts at once. So long as she hunkers down over her tax-cutting and borrowing-to-subsidise winter plan, the party will hold together. But she can only manoeuvre within a constrained field – constrained by the different groups in the Commons who have no affection for her.

The more she explores fracking, reopening oil and gas franchises, loosening planning laws, media regulation, and changing employment rights, the more fragile her Commons majority will be. My advice would be to avoid all the inviting slip roads. Solidarity with Ukraine, for instance, is a big, politically easy area for her – as she made clear in the Commons. Confrontation with the EU is certainly not.

Where does this all leave the giant elephant trap Keir Starmer invited her to walk into at Prime Minister’s Questions this week? Having ruled out windfall taxes, Truss knows the cost will land on ordinary families eventually – either through higher inflation or higher energy bills in the long term – as the shareholders and bosses of the big energy firms roll around with relief on their state-funded feather beds.

For people who are on the left and even vaguely political, this is a no-brainer argument against the Truss brand of pro-corporate free-marketry (though there is nothing free about a market rigged and underwritten by the state). A government under constant pressure to spend to improve daily life – sewers, schools, A&E departments, passports, policing, courts – will be under constant criticism for leaving huge corporate windfall profits untouched.

But a word of warning. These political arguments may not filter out strongly to the general public for a while. So long as people are still feeling profoundly relieved about their energy bills, Truss will get the benefit of the doubt.

The Labour leadership, meanwhile, will be under intense pressure to go further and back at least temporary renationalisation. In a crisis, remember, this is the politics not of “Corbynism” but of Gordon Brown and Andy Burnham.

For Labour in the medium term, nationalisation may be an election-winning policy. The unfairness of ruling out windfall taxes could be fatal for the Tories. But oddly, in the short term at least, there may be more immediate pressure on Starmer than on Truss.

She has gone into battle girded up for a full-scale ideological fight – performative plate-armour Thatcherism for the Tik-Tok generation. Having skirmished for so long against the strangely Protean personality politics of Johnson, Starmer now has to buckle up for a new political era. The party conferences ahead of us in Liverpool and Birmingham promise to be sensational.

[See also: Who pays for Liz Truss’s energy price cap?]