She wandered out and into this defining moment with the sure footed certainty of a frightened Thunderbird. She stared out from behind the lectern with a grin that looked as if it might not merely have been drawn on, but cast in concrete. If, at this moment, she’d been played footage of her own funeral, one doubts it would have caused the smile to crack, which was, in many ways, precisely what happened next.
It’s a symphony hall, normally, the grand Birmingham theatre which the Tories insist on coming to each year to perform their latest cacophonic spree, but it’s never heard a performance quite like this one, which was an attempt at some kind of symphony but played on a piano with a single key.
Liz Truss only has one idea, one note, and that’s that growth. Growth growth growth! Growth will solve everything. She has absolutely no idea about how to make growth happen, apart from to cut taxes, keep saying the word “growth” and hope for the best. (She is so certain that cutting taxes will lead to growth that she has borrowed £45bn to do it, an act of insanity on which the markets, the voters and her party have already given their verdict.)
You can achieve more than you think with a one note piano. You can hit it hard, you can tap it gently, you can do little staccato riffs, or you can do what this particular pianist does best and leave long torturous gaps between the notes as you glance around, leaving your audience unsure as to whether you’re wanting them to clap for making the same point for the eleventh time or whether you’re just trying – for the twelfth time – to relocate your place on the autocue.
It was very boring, very boilerplate stuff. “I know how it feels to have your potential dismissed,” she said. She, like most Tories, seems to want to live in a country where everyone gets the chance to fulfil their potential, yet continues to foist this chance upon prime ministers who are completely and utterly out of their depth. To those who tried to dismiss Liz Truss’s potential, for your country’s sake – why didn’t you try harder?
It’s crucial to the Truss view of the world that Truss herself has had to struggle, that she’s been the victim of gross injustice, which is why she spent most of the summer slagging off the school that still somehow managed to get her into Oxford. The cruel discrimination she had saved up for this big moment was a tale of how, when she got on a plane as a little child, she got given a junior air hostess badge, while her her brothers got given junior pilot badges.
“For too long it’s all been about how we distribute a limited economic pie,” she said. “Instead we need to grow the pie so that everyone gets a bigger slice.”
It’s not merely that she’s had over a month now to stop saying the phrase “grow the pie”, a piece of near unique linguistic idiocy. It’s that she really, truly, does seem to believe that she is the first prime minister who has ever had the bright idea to try and grow the economy.
She also claimed to be “the first prime minister who went to a comprehensive school”. Which is kind of true, apart from the awkward fact that Gordon Brown went to a comprehensive school, and Liz Truss’s school wasn’t a comprehensive when she went to it.
Inevitably, it took a turn toward the insane shortly before the end. Having established that she is going to grow the economy, simply by saying the word growth over and over again, at this point she had to frame her enemies – the “anti-growth coalition”.
These people are – deep breath now – Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, people on Twitter, people who make podcasts in north London. They’re not the people whose side she’s on. Those people are the “white van drivers, the plumbers, the hairdressers, the accountants (but crucially, not airline cabin crew who she’d slagged off for no reason 15 minutes before)”.
Look, it’s all very well saying that you’re on the side of the normal people and everyone else is some woke weirdo that’s talking Britain down. But it’s a lot harder when you’re 33 points behind in the polls, because the people whose side you say you’re on have taken one look at you and run a mile. You’ve got a vision for Britain that no one voted for and no one believes in.
This party trick has worked for them for quite a while now – to pulverise the country and then dismiss those asking for the pulverisation to stop as “talking Britain down”. But people haven’t been talking Britain down, they’ve been talking the Tories down and they’re about to stop talking them down but take them down.
It was a suitable end point to three days of complete chaos, which made clear that the Truss years are already over, long before they’ve begun. No one in her own cabinet is prepared to make themselves look as stupid as they would have to look by agreeing with her.
It had been said that the prime minister had one speech to save her premiership, but that’s unfair. It’s already far too late for that. This speech didn’t save her premiership, but it could have been Martin Luther King doing the Gettysburg address up there and it wouldn’t have made a blind bit of difference.
And this is the fate to which she is now consigned – shouting about growth while getting smaller and smaller and smaller. Perpetually setting out your vision for Britain to a Britain that will never see it, not merely because it’s meaningless but because it’s never going to vote for it. The pie won’t grow, but the pie lady has already vanished to nothing.