During what may yet turn out to have been only the first Conservative leadership contest of 2022, Liz Truss was extremely careful to position herself as the continuity candidate to Boris Johnson. That display of apparent loyalty was to prove pivotal with many party members when they selected her over the Johnson assassin, Rishi Sunak. Yet as Truss’s first month as prime minister has now shown, she is not the continuity Johnson candidate at all. Instead she glories in being a radical disrupter.
This was evident from day one, when Truss appointed a cabinet overwhelmingly from the Tory right, while banishing prominent ministers of the Johnson era. It became explosively obvious two weeks later, when Kwasi Kwarteng slashed taxes on the rich, setting off the chain of events that has transformed British party politics and left the Tory party’s ratings in tatters. On Wednesday, it was starkly confirmed in Truss’s party conference speech in Birmingham – a defiant address that contained no mention of Johnson whatever, let alone any endorsement of his policies.
On the day of her leadership victory a month ago, Truss said she had campaigned as a Conservative and would now govern as a Conservative. It’s the kind of platitude that new leaders often spout. But the Tory party that heard those words must have thought it implied some degree of continuity with the recent past.
It did not. In Truss’s mouth, the words implied what she had always intended them to mean: a decisive shift to the Thatcher/Reagan economic right of the kind that has long been the dream of the party’s free-market thinktanks, but is fundamentally at odds with Johnson’s messy, big-government pragmatism.
Truss’s speech was an unapologetic confirmation that this is what we are now witnessing. She sees hers as a different and very particular form of Conservatism. She is not interested – as Johnson was, albeit in his own, slapdash way – in making compromises with any other forms. Hers is a Year Zero approach.
At three separate points in the speech, she used the phrase “new approach”. All three usages felt very deliberate and significant. They signalled that this is a prime minister who, now that she has got hold of the steering wheel, will not look in the rear-view mirror, and will drive until she is stopped.
In one of these references, directed explicitly at trying to reassure the financial markets, Truss spoke of “taking a new approach based on what has worked before”. It is important to deconstruct that remark. What had “worked before”, in this reading, was not anything that Johnson had been doing. The reference was to Margaret Thatcher’s taming of the trade unions, her privatisations of nationalised industries, and her deregulation of the City in the 1980s.
In other words, this was a not-so-coded warning that, whatever the financial turmoil of the past two weeks, Truss is unbowed. She still sees market deregulation and low taxes as the absolute core of the strategy, whatever happened after the mini-budget.
All Conservative leaders talk about deregulation and low taxes. The words have been guaranteed applause lines in any Tory politician’s conference speech over the past four decades. They may seem little more than pieties. But Truss’s use of them is different. She is more ideological and visceral, not just compared with Johnson but also with Theresa May, David Cameron or John Major. Truss’s real commitment is to a Thatcher of her imagining (in reality, Thatcher was more subtle). It has an almost theological quality, and it was reflected in a speech that made no concessions to her critics.
She is also, at least in her own self-image, up for the fight. In spite of the U-turns in the past days, on the top rate income tax band and the Office for Budget Responsibility, Truss had no word of apology or empathy this time. It is clear she will cut benefits in real terms if she can. When she mentioned levelling up, which she also did on three separate occasions, it was to promise to level up Britain “in a Conservative way”. By this, she did not mean the government investment that Johnson was always implying (though not delivering). When Truss says “in a Conservative way”, she means her way – cutting taxes and regulations – and that she at least is prepared to weather the disruption and opposition.
Yet if Truss is prepared to fight for this approach, the same can hardly be said for many in her party. The Tory party feels exhausted, feels as if it is increasingly going through the motions of being a governing party. No one attending the Birmingham conference could have missed the unease.
It manifested itself in myriad different ways, from the criticisms made by a newly energised Michael Gove, through the readiness of ministers such as Penny Mordaunt to stand up for inflation-proof benefits, to the gallows humour in fringe meetings. When the Ipsos pollster Gideon Skinner told one fringe gathering that current polls would show a general election loss of 181 Tory MPs, the man sitting next to me whispered: “Actually, that feels quite reassuring right now.”
Birmingham settled nothing. The conference was the Tory party’s “What on earth have we done?” moment. As a result, Truss found herself fighting for her political life. There genuinely was talk about whether to act quickly and find a new leader (or bring back Johnson). Truss’s speech will get her through the coming weekend. But it was a dishonest speech, more important for its omissions and its concealments than for anything that spoke, let alone with empathy, to a party that is beginning to feel its luck has run out.
The U-turns this week have in fact disabled the prime minister’s attempt to drive her agenda forward. They will hardly be the last. The return to Westminster will move the spotlight on to the parliamentary party once again. The Gove-Sunak wing of the party now possesses an effective veto over what the Truss-Kwarteng wing gets to do. This will shape the dark machinations (which have already begun) of the coming days and weeks.
The truth is that the post-Brexit electoral coalition assembled by Johnson in 2019 was always so volatile and idiosyncratic that anyone else would have struggled to be the continuity leader once he stepped down. Yet Truss is proving something else besides. The fracturing and narrowing of the Tory party over the past decade is now so great that it has resulted in the party being simultaneously ungovernable and unable to govern. It is possible that Truss herself may soon be toppled. Yet no one else would do much better. It is time for the Conservatives to go into opposition. Only then can they try to decide what governing as a Conservative now means.