It’s very easy to mock Liz Truss’s speeches (fun, too), as the seven-week prime minister shares her purported wisdom on the political circuit. Yet her legacy may be stronger than her implosion suggests, especially if the polls predicting a major election defeat prove correct and the Tories soon find themselves scrambling to find meaning.
Given the chaos that engulfed her, it is easy to forget the forces that propelled Truss into No 10. Around a third of the parliamentary party ensured her spot in the final round of voting, and more MPs fell in behind her after that, while nearly 60 per cent of the members backed her against Rishi Sunak. While she will never have another tilt at the leadership, the Truss contingent remains a sizeable proportion of the party. Sunak’s net favourability with the members is still less than 50 points.
While the sunnier Sunakistas talk of the Prime Minister pulling off a general election comeback, the Tory realists in Westminster accept the most likely outcome of 2024 is defeat, opposition and a change of leader. Truss’s influence over her faction could play a key role in this – especially if the narrative becomes the need to pivot away from Sunak’s sensible managerialism, and if the parliamentary party has shrunk by a third or more.
For all her shortcomings as a PM, Truss also had the political nous to get her into No 10, deftly sliding her way through the Cameron, May and Johnson eras. She was a prominent Remainer who reinvented herself as a Leaver and captured the party’s heart with buoyant Thatcher cosplay. That her new approach appears to be grafting anti-wokery on to this agenda suggests something about where the party mood is headed.
The next election will probably be intensely, psychologically damaging for the Tory party. Few of those in parliament today were political insiders in 1997 – several frontbenchers hadn’t even done their A-levels. They have only experienced the party being in the ascendant, exercising power – opposition will be unfamiliar, rebuilding an almost inconceivable task. The contrast with 2019 being the party’s greatest triumph since 1987 will make the collapse seem even starker.
Parties in this situation are more likely to cling to their base and seek easy answers than delve deeply into what went wrong. Truss’s pitch a year ago was a rehash of the party’s greatest hits – of tax cuts and deregulation, except where it touches Tory bedrocks, like pensions and planning. If the party turns inwards, all that is likely to be in vogue again.
Her latest speech in Washington DC suggests how this message can be combined with the Tory’s heightened desire to fight the culture war. Her attacks on the establishment blob also align with the Conservatives’ increasingly frantic quest to associate itself with a certain type of marginalisation. Through Brexit and 2019, where the Tories found new support among C2DE social classes, the party has sought to distance itself from the elite with a populist veneer. That fits neatly with the Truss strategy of expressing frustration with a national – and now international – establishment that has (in her view, at least) connived to block its successes. According to her, the failure of her brief time in office can and should be blamed on “coordinated resistance” from the British media and corporate establishments, as well as “the IMF and even from President Biden”.
By rights, Liz Truss should be a spent political force. Her premiership was disastrous, a laughing stock – but all through her career she has risen despite her many obvious faults. She will not return to No 10 but seems intent on playing a big role within the party all the same. She still has the ear of many in the parliamentary party and knows how to sell a message to the members. Her new pronouncements show glimmers of how her faction could pull together economic liberalism with cultural conservatism. Whether it convinces the nation, or survives contact with power a second time remains to be seen – but the first battle is for the party, and she could have a surprising influence.