In her big pre-conference, set for an interview on Sunday, Liz Truss’ tactics were clear. Show a touch of humility, admit that the government should have prepared everyone better for the mega-budget, but still stress that it hasn’t changed course on the fundamentals.
“I accept that we should have prepared the ground better, I learned from that,” she told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.
But even this one seeming concession did not sound like taking responsibility, but like a waiver. More ‘we’ than ‘I’, the implication was that those around her had made a mistake and she wouldn’t let it happen again.
Her later insistence that the move to abolish the top 45p tax rate was really due to Kwasi Kwarteng – “it was a decision by the Chancellor” – echoed Boris Johnson’s attempt to blame Rishi Sunak for raising national insurance which he personally approved. Any hint of a gap between #10 and #11 is unhelpful at the best of times. It’s toxic right now.
It is certainly the case that many Tory MPs and economists who broadly support the Truss plans felt they were improperly executed. If the scrapping of the 45p tax rate and bankers’ bonus proposals had been delayed until later this year or next, more attention could have been focused on energy bill help and tax cuts for ordinary workers.
The difficulty for the Tory party is that even in her apparent admission of error, Truss sounded altogether unrepentant. Like one of these interviewees, when asked about their worst mistake and replies that they are “too much of a perfectionist,” the Prime Minister’s message seems to be that she is to sometimes crucial and that can lead to communication errors.
But it’s not just the lack of proper communication that is Truss’ real problem, it’s their lack of a coherent, detailed plan for the economy. The city’s merchants have not pounced in recent days, suddenly outraged by the inequality of redistributing more money to the wealthiest. They pounced because Kwarteng announced a huge increase in debt without seriously saying how and when it would be repaid.
And rather than being too firm on this key requirement for any government, Truss and her chancellor have been indecisive. Today, as her MPs call for the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to quickly release the assessment of her plans, she said it would be available “very soon” – while saying she was still due on November 23 would be published. For most people, seven weeks isn’t all that short.
Neither Truss nor Kwarteng have defined what they mean by ‘medium term’ in their ‘medium term fiscal plan’ to turn the tide and start reducing the UK debt to GDP ratio. The real reason for this could be that they’re crossing their fingers for growth to come over time instead. This is not a plan, this is a tooth fairy style wish.
Truss’ overall management style was that she wasn’t adept at PR, but true to her word that she wasn’t spin, she was substance. Her tantalizing media appearances of late have validated the logic of this approach, but it’s the lack of substance in how the books are balanced that becomes her Kryptonite. There are no resolutions, only declarations of intent.
What worries Tory backbenchers most is the cold-bloodedness of a Downing Street that seems busy ridiculing the markets. For many, this feels like the calm of delusion, not that of decisiveness.
Kuenssberg’s most unanswerable point to Truss today was that for many people, the rise in mortgage costs will far outweigh any help the government gives them with energy bills or tax cuts. Although the Bank of England is independent of government, it is still influenced by government policies. And alongside the rate hikes, it was the unaudited mega-budget that triggered a surge in gilts, which in turn prompted mortgage lenders to pull out of business.
Comparisons to John Major’s “Black Wednesday” are far from exact, but Kwarteng’s “Black Friday” event on September 23 meant he and Truss similarly electrified the third rail of Tory politics: middle-class homeowners who are deeply affected when their mortgage costs suddenly spike. Their fear, fueled by the feeling that they are being used as lab rats in the radical Trussonomics experiment, is the main reason behind the huge surge in Labor support.
Given all this turmoil, it is not surprising that ministers are now hinting at spending cuts. Truss couldn’t shut her out today and sounded most robotic as she responded by talking about “inputs” (expenses) and “outputs” (frontline services).
So perhaps the most revealing exchange came when she was asked simply, “How many people voted for your plan?” Truss paused in one of her now-characteristic pauses, as if there was a system glitch in her brain that couldn’t calculate the question. “What do you mean by that?” She answered.
When it was pointed out that only a few thousand Tory members voted for her, not millions of voters, the Prime Minister said people voted for “investment in their cities” in 2019. However, it’s hard to see how cutting CAPEX (as some are suggesting) or Income Expense will help level up. It’s not often noticed, but millions voted for Boris Johnson not only to “get Brexit done” but because they believed his promise to end austerity.
For someone who keeps saying, “What you see is what you get,” any deeper cuts in public spending would also go against Truss’s own promise during the leadership campaign in July, when she specifically said, “I’m pretty sure that I’m not planning cuts in public spending.” She wasn’t entirely clear today.
The first hurdle for Truss is, of course, her MPs. Her attempt to charm Michael Gove – she smiled at him as she said she was trying to “win the hearts and minds of my colleagues across the Conservative Party” – was met with such an icy reaction from the former Cabinet Secretary that she told David belonged to Attenboroughs Frozen Planet II.
“There is still a lack of recognition of the scale of the changes required,” concluded Gove. “There has to be a course correction… reality bites.” Gove was famously right when he warned in 2016 that Johnson was unfit to lead the nation. Likewise, he may be right that Truss’s radical economic plans are a “vacation from reality.”
The next few days in Birmingham will show whether you and your party still live in a parallel universe. As conservatives navigate their return to the Earth’s atmosphere of political reality, the real question is how quickly they will do so. And if the party dies down when you re-enter.