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Truss’s first conference speech as leader was short, detail-free and packed with platitudes

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Greenpeace protesters interrupt Prime Minister Liz Truss as she delivers her keynote speech to the Conservative Party’s annual conference in Birmingham yesterday. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Greenpeace protesters interrupt Prime Minister Liz Truss as she delivers her keynote speech to the Conservative Party’s annual conference in Birmingham yesterday. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Greenpeace protesters interrupt Prime Minister Liz Truss as she delivers her keynote speech to the Conservative Party’s annual conference in Birmingham yesterday. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Liz Truss survived her first conference speech as Tory leader by uniting her audience against a new enemy – what she called an “anti-growth coalition” who are the “enemies of enterprise”.

She turned the Greenpeace protesters who were ejected from the hall to her advantage. But I don’t remember Labour, the Lib Dems, SNP, unions or Remainers being against economic growth, as she suggested.

And after her disastrous start as PM, Truss was not strong enough to take on the anti-growth members of her own party – for example, those who oppose her plans for more housebuilding, the one easy way to boost growth.

The unusually short, 35-minute address had precious little detail of her “clear plan for growth”, and relied heavily on her platitudes during the Tory leadership contest. There was only a brief nod to her bruising start, and spectacular retreat over scrapping the top tax rate, but she doesn’t do contrition.

She admitted taking the “tough decisions” would cause “disruption” but I’m not sure that was a good idea when the public, the financial markets and many of her MPs have had enough chaos and cry out for some stability.

Truss has been bruised by one of the most shambolic, amateurish and divided party conferences I have seen in 40 years of attending the annual gatherings of the Tories and Labour.

When in 1982 I arrived in the Westminster ‘village’, the governing Tories were the masters of the stage-managed conference, while Labour usually tore itself apart as its left-right civil war was waged in front of the TV cameras.

Now the two parties have changed places. Labour enjoyed a united and disciplined conference in Liverpool last week and looked a credible government-in-waiting.

But in Birmingham, the Tories behaved more like an opposition rabble than a party in power. Cabinet discipline has not yet been imposed. Ministers aired contradictory views in public about whether state benefits should be raised by less than the rate of inflation.

Truss, who ran for the leadership promising to be a second Margaret Thatcher, looked more like a second Theresa May – not in control of the economy or her cabinet, and seemingly at the mercy of events.

A new leader in either main party would normally be guaranteed a trouble-free first conference by their internal critics. Truss denied herself this with self-inflicted wounds that will be remembered for putting up people’s mortgage costs.

“We have destroyed our reputation for fiscal responsibility,” one MP said.

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Truss has managed to upset everyone – her natural allies, by keeping the top tax rate; and her critics, by doing it in such a messy fashion.

Even when the Tories created some good news – by accelerating Kwasi Kwarteng’s medium-term fiscal plan from November 23 – they managed to scupper positive headlines for the financial markets by denying it and leaving everyone confused. (It probably will be brought forward, so why the hell didn’t they just say so?)

In the last four days, the Tories looked like a party that could feel the ground shifting beneath its feet, knowing there was nothing they could do about it. Many Tories think the next general election is already lost.

Their MPs are not yet ready to depose Truss, but that could change by the new year if she cannot get her government back on track.

“She has until Christmas,” one former minister told me. “If the polls are still bad then, we will have nothing to lose by moving against her.”

Truss allies insist that, after 30 days in office, there is still time for her to turn things round. One said: “The people stirring it are just those around Rishi [Sunak] who wanted a ministerial job and didn’t get one.”

Yet the anxiety goes much wider than that; even some who backed Truss fear the public’s first impression of her will stick. It usually does.

JL Partners, the pollsters, have produced a word cloud showing “incompetent” is the word people most use about Truss, followed by “useless”, “untrustworthy” and “dangerous”.

No wonder some Tories privately regret backing her.

Many grassroots members already pine for Boris Johnson. He was not at the conference, but every mention of his name got a huge cheer from members, while Truss’s name was often greeted with silence.

Though Johnson supporters have convinced themselves he would win a leadership contest, I doubt Tory MPs would risk it.

Other contenders include Sunak (maybe the only Tory who could calm another outbreak of market mayhem), Kemi Badenoch, and Ben Wallace.

One senior Tory described the conference as “a total s***show”, saying: “I don’t think Truss can recover from this. The only question now is whether she is kicked out by our MPs or the voters.”

For now, the final blow looks more likely to be delivered by the public – because MPs fear yet another new PM would alienate even more voters.

As one Tory put it: “We are trapped.” 


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