Liz Truss defends first month in office at Conservative Party conference

LONDON – Prime Minister Liz Truss on Wednesday sought to bolster her authority after a brutal first month in office by claiming that while not everyone supports the changes her new government is pushing, “all will benefit from the result – a growing economy and a better future.”

But just moments after her keynote address at the annual Conservative Party Convention, she was interrupted by Greenpeace protesters carrying a banner that read: “Who voted for it?” They were quickly removed from the hall.

British Prime Minister Liz Truss was harassed by two protesters holding a Greenpeace banner during her speech October 5 in Birmingham, England. (Video: Reuters)

The Conservative Party Conference, with a new Prime Minister, was a moment the party had hoped would mark a fresh start after the many scandals of its predecessor, Boris Johnson. Instead, Truss had to defend the first few weeks of her premiership, already marked by historic economic volatility, a revolt within her party and voters turning away in droves from the Conservatives.

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“I’m ready to make the tough decisions,” she said. She warned of “stormy days” ahead but insisted Britain must “do things differently” and that “whenever there’s change, there’s disruption”.

“I am committed to taking a fresh approach and breaking out of this cycle of high tax and low growth,” she told party supporters gathered in Birmingham, England.

Referring to the protesters later in her speech, she spoke disparagingly of an “anti-growth coalition” made up of a broad mass of people in the country, including opposition politicians, “the militant trade unions, the interest groups disguised as think tanks, the Talking Heads, the Brexit deniers, Extinction Rebellion and some of the people we had in the room earlier.”

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“The fact is, they’d rather protest than do. They’d rather talk on Twitter than make tough decisions,” she said. “They roll from north London townhouses to the BBC studios to sack anyone who challenges the status quo. From the show to the podcast, they peddle the same old answers. It’s always more taxes, more regulation and more interference. Wrong, wrong, wrong.”

Truss took office with a lot to prove. Although she had a fairly prominent role as foreign secretary during the war in Ukraine, she wasn’t as well known to the British public as Johnson – a colorful former Mayor of London and newspaper columnist – was before he took the helm.

Truss was not driven by a general election, but by a leadership contest within her party. Even then, she wasn’t the first choice of Conservative Party lawmakers, and some of the grassroots party members who have rallied around her have admitted they already missed Johnson.

Any momentum Truss had as the new Prime Minister was wiped out after two days by the death of Queen Elizabeth II. The new Prime Minister toured the four nations of the United Kingdom alongside the new King, but she played a minor role.

When attention finally returned to politics, things took a dramatic turn for the worse. Her government’s plan to boost the economy through tax cuts aimed primarily at the wealthy and funded by billions in loans prompted investors to divest British assets. The pound fell to an all-time low against the dollar. The Bank of England had to step in to quell a financial markets revolt.

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The pound is recovering after the UK government reversed some of the fiscal policy that brought it down

It was only after 10 days of economic turmoil and under intense pressure from her party that Truss reversed course, announcing on Monday that she was abandoning the most controversial element of her economic plan: a proposal to end the top tax rate.

Since then, the pound has recovered. But disagreements within the Conservative Party remain, as this week’s conference report made clear. Home Secretary Suella Braverman on Tuesday lashed out at those within the party who “staged a coup” that “unprofessionally undermined our prime minister’s authority.”

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party’s public opinion has plummeted 20 to 30 points over the past two weeks.

“This is the most dramatic shift in public opinion polling of my life,” said Chris Curtis, head of political polling at Opinium Research.

The Conservatives “have lost the sense of being the economically competent party — it’s as simple as that,” Curtis said.

A opinion poll The report released Tuesday night showed the opposition Labor Party leading the Conservatives by 38 points in the “red wall” areas of northern England, trailing the Conservatives in the 2019 election.

If elections were held today, according to pollsters, the Labor Party would win the largest majority.

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“This shift in the polls shows that the UK electorate is increasingly volatile. It is based less and less on party affiliation. Voters will move from one party to the next,” said Will Jennings, professor of political science at the University of Southampton.

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Politics in Britain is much less polarized than in the United States. That’s partly because of Brexit, which prompted many people to walk away from parties they had supported for decades and instead view themselves as “dropouts” or “remainers” – labels that crossed party lines. Now that Brexit is a done deal, Voters are open to being influenced by other causes.

This volatility means the pendulum could swing back and forth a few times before the next election, which could last until January 2025, and therefore neither the Conservative Party nor Truss are in immediate danger.

Still, the Conservatives have been known to ruthlessly dump leaders who no longer look like vote-winners. Johnson was ousted halfway through his term after a series of scandals, despite leading his party to a whopping majority in 2019.

If Conservatives think Truss will drag her down, she could be booted out just like Johnson.

“She’s in a vulnerable, delicate situation,” Jennings said. “If the Conservatives stay where they are in the polls, [members of Parliament] will be very concerned. One should never presume too much about the political future, but it is certainly true that it is in a difficult position. Regaining the support of their MPs and constituents will be an enormous challenge.”

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