I was at the Conservative party conference earlier this week. I had a great time, mostly because I’m not a Tory. In some ways, this was like any other conference the governing party has held in recent years. Very young men wearing too much tweed. The liberal Tories holding out hope, as they have done for a while, that the “UKIP-isation of the Conservative party” experiment is finally on the verge of crashing and burning. The lobbyists standing around trading gossip and asking one another what to make of it all.
But this edition was different. The corporates were up in arms, mostly about the number of expensive lunches/dinners/drinks they had booked in order to be in the room with high profile members of the cabinet, who either did not turn up or appeared for 30 seconds, mumbling, before leaving again. This is significant as the business community is getting increasingly tired of the Conservatives and their antics, at the same time as Starmer’s Labour has become a feasible option for them instead.
However, so much of what this conference boiled down to was the prime minister’s speech. Would it further the problems Truss’s rocky start to her premiership had created or would it go some ways toward steadying the ship a little? The consensus on the speech seems to be settling into: not bad, not good, could have been a lot worse. The delegates went home reasonably happy at the end of it, job done.
I offer here an alternative viewpoint on the speech. It was a straight up disaster. A total shambles that demonstrated how doomed the prime minister’s political career is. Yes, there were no truly awful gaffes of the type that get remembered forever, such as the letters falling off the wall behind a coughing Theresa May. Neither were there any good points in the speech. And given Truss has a net approval rating of -59%, one that surpasses the depths of Johnson, Clegg, Miliband and Corbyn at their lowest, Truss needed to come up with something here to suggest that she could turn the ship around. She definitively failed to do this.
Scared and angry, not confident or in command
Traditionally the point of politicians disclosing their personal stories, particularly the ones filled with hardship and struggle, is to tell voters, “See! I’m just like you! You battle with difficult things every day and so have I. But look, I became prime minister in spite of all that. You can do anything you want yourself.” And on the page, that’s what the portions of Truss’s speech dealing with her backstory could have achieved in the mouth of a much more accomplished orator (or even Boris Johnson). However, through her delivery, Truss revealed the exact opposite of this. What came across instead was, “See! Everyone tried to hold me down and stop me from succeeding, but I did anyhow because I’m particularly smart and better than everyone else. But I won in the end.”
This feeling was reflected in the parts on North London think-tankers and other assorted villains who populate Liz Truss World. Again, the idea behind this is to communicate that you are on the side of ‘real’ Britons as opposed to the Green, socialist, Remainer, or whatever other epithet that represents something supposedly dislikeable to the average tax-paying citizen. It is to set up an ‘Us v Them’ dynamic and convince people you are the best representative for ‘Us’. Boris Johnson was very good at this sort of thing. Yet again, Truss managed to communicate the exact opposite of what was intended here, essentially radiating the same energy as when relating her personal story of success in the face of opposition from the people who tried to hold her back. She sounded spiteful and hurt as opposed to in command. She sounded scared and angry as opposed to confident.
Truss even weaker after conference speech
If Liz Truss ever reads this, I suppose she would characterise me as the sort of London-based talking head type she so despises; someone who was always going to write her off, like so many others have seemingly done throughout her life, right from the start. Except this feels inherently untrue to me. I thought Cameron was going to get a majority in 2010; I felt sure May was going to win a massive majority in 2017; I assumed Johnson would win at least one more general election before imploding. If anything, I have usually overestimated the electoral abilities of Conservative party leaders. And to some extent, I continue to do the same with Truss. Beforehand, I figured she would come out of Tory conference with something that improved her position, at least a smidge. But I don’t see how Truss comes back from this. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to see a way for the Conservatives to win the next general election – or even not to lose it in a catastrophic manner.
With cabinet ministers happy to contradict her throughout their time in Birmingham, or at the least to offer the media their own idiosyncratic versions of the Truss plan, the prime minister displayed no authority whatsoever, before the speech or during it. Above all, that’s what makes Truss’s speech such a disaster – if she’d really screwed up in some obvious manner, it would have at least paved the way for her to be removed in short order. As it is, the speech wasn’t bad enough to make that possible. Instead, she hangs on, in office but not in power, mostly clinging on for the next general election and hoping the loss will be bad for the party as opposed to existentially threatening its very existence.