This is the moment that Liz Truss has craved. After decades during which soggy statism has held sway, she has finally arrived to unchain Britannia.
It took only a few weeks for ideology to collide with reality. The abolition of the 45p tax rate self-destructed upon arrival. The Bank of England was forced to intervene to save the government from its own recklessness. In polls voters have fled from the Conservative Party as if it were a new coronavirus.
But the definition of an ideologue is someone who maintains their faith in defiance of reality. In her first party conference speech as Conservative leader, Truss reaffirmed her faith. For too long, she declared, the UK had been held back by an “anti-growth coalition” that had raised taxes and strangled enterprise. Political debate had been dominated by how to distribute “the pie” rather than how to grow it. In short, Britain must choose: does it want to be a richer country or merely a more equal one?
The problem is that it faces no such choice. As Truss will never concede, there are numerous countries that are not only more equal than the UK but richer too: France, Germany, the Nordic states, Australia and New Zealand. Even the International Monetary Fund – hardly a bastion of socialism – has felt moved to remind her that inequality is bad for growth.
Truss is hardly wrong when she complains that the UK has become a low-growth country. Since the 2008 financial crisis the economy has expanded at an average annual rate of just 1.5 per cent (compared to 2.7 per cent before the crash). Of the G7 countries only Italy has fared worse.
Yet Truss’s 36-minute speech – the shortest of any major party leader in memory – did not contain anything resembling an actual plan for growth. The UK’s problem is not that it taxes too much but that it invests too little. Yet far from raising infrastructure spending, Truss’s profligate tax cuts mean she is set to cut it. Her mantra, she declared, was “growth, growth, growth” but two of the biggest culprits for the lack of it – Brexit and austerity – were spared any blame.
The Prime Minister may plead that her experiment needs time to work (“whenever there is change, there is disruption”) but voters – and her own MPs – appear in little mood to wait and find out. Even before the Tories’ poll ratings became apocalyptic it was clear that the UK had no desire for a free-market revolution.
A day before Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget the British Social Attitudes survey showed that a mere 6 per cent of voters wanted Truss’s favoured combination of tax cuts and spending cuts. The Prime Minister, in short, is trying to govern a country that does not exist. Voters aren’t yearning for the “creative destruction” promised by Truss but for security and stability: better public services, higher wages, more affordable housing. Having set herself against socialists, social democrats, liberals, One Nation Tories, greens and “separatists”, the Prime Minister is preaching only to the converted. Forget an “anti-growth coalition”, Truss is leading an anti-voter one.
The most memorable moment of an unmemorable speech – “cranes building buildings” ran one inelegant phrase – came when she was interrupted by Greenpeace protesters holding aloft a banner that read “who voted for this?” The answer, of course, is 81,326 Conservative Party members, or a mere 0.2 per cent of the population. And that, above all, explains how Britain came to have a Prime Minister who sees the country not as it is but as she wishes it was.
[See also: The Brexit revolution devours its children]