Liz Truss attempted yesterday to unite her party around a common enemy of the “anti-growth coalition” of trade unions, remainers and green campaigners after a turbulent Tory conference that left her party divided and her leadership in peril.
After a fractious four-day gathering in Birmingham, the prime minister pledged to get the country “through the tempest” of the winter economic crisis by pressing on with her economic plan for growth despite the “disruption” it risked unleashing.
Amid dire polling, Conservative MPs put her on notice with warnings that if she radically diverged from the party’s electoral mandate in coming months she risked being ousted at next spring’s local elections, the first electoral test of her tenure at No 10.
“These are stormy days,” Truss admitted as she sought to revive her faltering leadership. “In these tough times we need to step up. I am determined to get Britain moving, to get us through the tempest and put us on a stronger footing as a nation.” However, the party returns to Westminster still reeling
from the fallout of the mini-budget, which undermined its reputation for economic competence, while a major U-turn over the 45p top rate of income tax prompted by a rebellion has weakened her authority.
After the speech, Downing Street suggested Tory whips would take steps to ensure ministers were more disciplined after a week of splits resulting in Truss’s allies accusing some MPs of trying to launch a coup.
Truss sought to reassure financial markets by recommitting to “fiscal responsibility” and insisting she and Kwasi Kwarteng, the chancellor, were in “lockstep” on plans, while blaming global factors for the economic turbulence.
After a week of chaos and infighting, Truss vowed to press on with controversial plans to boost growth, which will include cutting taxes, tearing up planning regulation and public spending cuts, even though they will inevitably bring further clashes with Tory MPs.
“As the last few weeks have shown, it will be difficult,” she insisted. “Whenever there is change, there is disruption. And not everyone will be in favour of change. But everyone will benefit from the result. I am ready to make hard choices. You can trust me to do what it takes. The status quo is not an option.”
There was a muted reaction from the financial markets, with the pound falling 1.32% against the dollar. Government borrowing costs also fell but were slightly higher over the day.
She said the Tories faced an “antigrowth coalition” of Labour, the SNP and Liberal Democrats, trade unions, anti-Brexit and environmental campaigners as well as “vested interests dressed up as thinktanks” – even though many of her own MPs are standing in the way of her plans.
“The fact is they prefer protesting to doing. They prefer talking on Twitter to taking tough decisions. They taxi from north London townhouses to the BBC studio to dismiss anyone challenging the status quo. From broadcast to podcast, they peddle the same old answers,” she said.
In contrast, Truss put herself on the side of “normal working people” like white van drivers, hairdressers and, bizarrely, accountants – her own professional background – who the coalition “just doesn’t get”.
Earlier, her speech was disrupted by protesters waving a Greenpeace banner saying: “Who voted for this?”.
Truss has repeatedly refused to say whether she would raise benefits in line with inflation, triggering a cabinet split as Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the Commons, and Robert Buckland, the Welsh secretary, suggested she should – and signalling another battle ahead.
But in her speech, she said she would exert an “iron grip” on public spending, hinting at possible austerity to come.
Further signs of a cabinet split emerged last night when Suella Braverman said she had “reservations” about Britain’s trade deal with India because it could increase immigration to the UK.
In an interview with the Spectator, Braverman said Indian migrants made up the largest number of visa overstayers in the UK. The home secretary also criticised a deal with India, signed by her predecessor, Priti Patel, to increase the number of illegal migrants and overstayers returned to the country, saying the agreement “has not necessarily worked very well”.
In her speech, Truss insisted she was sticking to Boris Johnson’s plans to “level up” the regions. “I know what it’s like to live somewhere which is not feeling the benefits of economic growth,” she said. “I’ve seen the boarded-up shops and people with no hope turning to drugs.”
Truss’s allies said they felt she had “done what she needed to do”. Her team has started meeting backbenchers in groups or individually to explain her plan.
However, many MPs ended the conference downhearted. One said: “Liz is playing a bunch of tunes that nobody is listening to. Never has a voter said that what they want is growth. They want the consequences of it – but she keeps talking about it in a way that nobody understands.”
Several MPs warned that next spring’s local elections represented a moment of danger. “If they’re bad the party will panic and try to get rid of her,” said one MP.
The shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, pointed out that Truss had been a minister for 10 years “at the heart of building a Conservative economy that has led to the flat wages and low growth” she talked about. “The most important thing the prime minister can do … is to immediately reverse her government’s kamikaze budget when parliament returns.”
‘Not everyone will be in favour of change, but everyone benefits from the result’
Liz Truss Prime minister