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10 October 2022

Liz Truss starts the parliamentary term in a desperately weak position

The Prime Minister's popularity is plummeting and Keir Starmer is becoming more radical.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Tomorrow marks the start of a new parliamentary term: what better moment to do a stock-take on where our political leaders are, what they want and how they might try and get it?

Liz Truss. Where to start? The Prime Minister will face Keir Starmer across the despatch box this week in a desperately weak position. Torn apart by her opponents, allies and even cabinet ministers at Conservative Party conference in Birmingham last week, Truss is already facing questions over whether her leadership will last. After Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous budget led to the pound tanking and the cost of borrowing increasing, the Treasury is eyeing welfare cuts. But this too is splitting the party: many are opposed to a plan to raise benefits by wages instead of inflation.

Truss is said to be in “listening mode”. This week she will launch a charm offensive with colleagues – which began last night with the appointment of Rishi Sunak-supporting Greg Hands as trade minister – and try to get public buy-in for her agenda. Based on her plummeting popularity in the polls, her relentless focus on economic growth is not winning over voters. Her challenge now is to forge a connection with the public by explaining why planning reforms, tax cuts and scattering the UK with enterprise zones could, one day, benefit them. But first she must recover her authority with MPs, most of whom did not support her in the first place.

Though no one on the opposition benches would admit it, Labour is indebted to Boris Johnson for the “levelling up” slogan that helped him to win the 2019 election. It resonated with austerity-hit Britain and has made radical reform more difficult for Truss, pinning the Conservative Party to the centre ground. This is a space Starmer can now occupy as Truss drags the Tories to the right with no mandate.

After 12 years in power the governing party looks hopelessly divided, and all signs point to a Labour government. Starmer has so far plotted a careful, risk-averse course. This began to change at Labour conference in Liverpool, with a policy blitz that included a publicly-owned green energy company and pledges to bring home ownership in the UK up to 70 per cent. Sources suggest that Starmer will build on this and be more radical as the next election approaches.

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If Starmer does enter Downing Street, he will do so as a man in his early 60s – almost 20 years older than Tony Blair when he took power in 1997. The narrative Starmer creates will be important for whichever front-bencher (and the chances are that a Labour Party celebrating victory will look to its leading lights before its back bench this time) hopes to lead next.

Meanwhile the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, who speaks at SNP conference in Aberdeen today, is awaiting the outcome of a Supreme Court case on whether Holyrood can hold an independence referendum without the support of the UK government. If the ruling, which is expected by Christmas, is that the Scottish government cannot hold a new vote, the First Minister has vowed to fight the next election as a “de facto referendum”. There is no precedent for this and polls suggest a majority of Scots are against it. If the court surprises everyone and rules in favour of the SNP, a vote on independence could be held as early as next October.

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Will a politician who has built her reputation on being sensible and measured really go for the nuclear option and use a general election to force change? Or will Sturgeon decide she has taken the movement for independence as far as she can? Her address today will be pored over for signs on how she views the future.