It is already becoming a slight cliché to suggest Liz Truss could be compared to Eric Morecambe. Like him, she has all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. In her conference speech, she laid out, more than at any point so far in her premiership, who she is, what she believes, and what she intends to do as Prime Minister. The trouble for her is whether the foul-ups of the last few weeks have so damaged her nascent premiership that all of it will be for nought.
At around half an hour, Truss’s speech was shorter than previous leaders’ orations. The benefit of it as that it ensured she was punchy. This was a clear and direct elucidation of her aims and ambitions. ‘Freedom’ is the core Conservative belief. Britain is held back by an ‘anti-growth coalition’, embodied by the Greenpeace activists who interrupted her. And a message for rebellious MPs: we cannot give in ‘to the voices of decline’ – or we may as well hand Keir Starmer the keys to Number 10 tomorrow.
Whilst no new policy emerged, Truss also gave us our first insight into her personally. Previous speeches have been big on rhetoric, little on personality. Here the Prime Minister told us she could understand the public because she was someone who had had it tough too. She had fought to get jobs, juggled her career and her work, and wanted to ensured nobody else had the to have their potential stymied. You started to get a sense of the lady behind the occasional awkward interactions.
The problem for Truss is that all that provokes a slight sense of déjà vu. When she started to highlight the importance of super-fast broadband being rolled out across the country, or of making it easier to build big infrastructure projects, or even to get Britain growing faster, one can’t help but remember the occasions when her three predecessors said much the same things. That these objectives have still not apparently been achieved suggests our achievements since 2010 are rather sparse.
That is not to say that there are not virtues in what Truss is aiming to do. Since the financial crisis, our growth has been far too sluggish. We have an economy hooked on cheap debt and zombie companies, rather than innovation and thrift. It is far too difficult to build anything, from train-lines to houses, and our regulation is far too often opaque and unnecessary. What Truss wants to do is essential, if we are to avoid a future as a over-large Bicester Village, nostalgically catering to foreign tourists as we slowly sink into the sea.
But as with Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, one does not just need good ideas, but the plan to deliver them. Anyone who has read John Hoskyns’ Just in Time will understand that having the right policies is meaningless without a strategy to deliver them. Prioritisation, gripping the Whitehall machine, communication, and picking battles – these are the choices that ensure a government’s success. You cannot try and do everything at once, or you risk doing none of it.
Unfortunately for Truss, her MPs are sufficiently spooked and the markets jumpy enough that getting through those supply-side reforms she has promised will be very difficult. Without them, reaching sustainable 2.5 per cent growth will remain impossibly. Moreover, her failure to so far take her MPs, party, and the country with her on her mission means that if she was to achieve some successes, it is doubtful whether they would be readily apparent to the voters.
Nobody outside of economics lectures and Tufton Street talks about growth, GDP, and supply-side reform. They do understand new jobs, revived high streets, and more money in their pockets. That is what Truss should be talking about ad infinitum, and how she should have pitched her Chancellor’s mini-budget. The 45p tax cuts and the removal of the bankers’ bonus cap are a sideshow to her ambition to make your hometown more prosperous, and to give you the opportunities you deserve,
Truss’s speech started that process. But our party still faces, at the next election, the single most damning indictment one could think of after almost a decade and a half in government. Voters will ask: what have we done for them? We have been given an extended leasehold on power, and even our own Prime Minister seems to think we have not done anywhere near enough. For all the limited success of Truss’s speech, one suspects that is a question we will still find difficult to answer.