Picture by Lauren Hurley / No 10 Downing Street

What Liz Truss’ speech tells us about the future of the Conservative Party

How are you commemorating the rolling anniversary of Liz Truss’ ill-fated 49-day premiership? On this pressing matter, there are a few schools of thought. 

The website ConservativeHome, that collective conscious of the Tory grassroots, is every day publishing a “Truss government revisited” feature, detailing day-by-day the slow descent of the former prime minister’s political fortunes. (This curious exercise, existing somewhere at the intersection of history and therapy, forces party members to face up to their Trussonomics-induced trauma). 

As for Labour, Keir Starmer’s party is honing its anti-Truss attack lines in a bid to tar the Conservative Party generally, and Sunak above all, with the former PM’s brush of fiscal profligacy. The party is also cannily demanding the prime minister block Truss’ resignation honours list.

Of course, Sunak won’t bin his predecessors gongs list — unless he intends to upend precedent (not his thing). But Labour’s line here will remind voters of the Conservatives’ recent travails ahead of a key by-election in Mid Bedfordshire, all while slighting the PM as “weak” in and around his party.

So how is Rishi Sunak marking the anniversary of his old adversary’s political demise? He is busy “being prime minister, having meetings”, according to his spokesperson.

The lettuce? Probably still mid-victory lap somewhere in The Daily Star’s offices. 

And, finally, when it comes to the salad vegetable’s vanquished opponent, the former prime minister spoke yesterday at an event dedicated to her premiership at the Institute for Government. 

Lest her opponents across the political spectrum be allowed a free run at using the anniversary of her premiership to further tarnish her legacy, this was Truss once again launching an impassioned defence of her time in power.

The former PM’s pitch was thus: Britain still faces many of the same issues it did last year regarding weak growth, a high budget deficit and — above all else — a mindset problem that dictates the previous two. 

It is an argument that has a few purposes and audiences. 

Firstly, it is an attempt to reframe the narrative of her government’s demise. In this way, Truss highlighted the possible culpability Bank of England, as well as a variety of other actors, in last year’s fiscal trauma — while admitting she was “completely blindsided” as PM by existing frailties of the pensions markets caused by liability-driven investments (LDIs).

Had Truss stuck to this particular line of argument she might have emerged, after it all, with some credit. Indeed, there is certainly a case to be made that analysts should incorporate a range of factors when considering last year’s meltdown — that is, of course, alongside the primary cause of Truss’ ideological venture and the crisis of credibility it triggered. 

But Truss, naturally, had other axes to grind. For one, she lashed out at former Bank of England governor Mark Carney who had over the weekend mocked her plan to create a “Singapore on Thames” by suggesting she had instead fashioned “Argentina on the Channel”.

“I’m afraid there’s quite a lot of finger-pointing going on from people like Mark Carney because they don’t want to admit their culpability or the culpability of their central banking associates in this”, she said.

She also repeated the claim that much of Whitehall is captured by the “anti-growth coalition” — a phrase created to blame last year’s jittered markets on culture, not policy. 

In sum, this means when Truss weighs the rights and wrongs of her 49-day tenure — besides the minimum admission of poor comms with a tortured pig-rearing analogy — the wrongs are mainly placed at the doors of external actors. The ideological impetus of the “mini” budget, she claimed, was right. Neither in diagnosis nor prescription does Truss find fault in her vision. 

Her plan for the UK economy, the former PM insisted moreover, had been vindicated by the economic developments of the last year. She cited a report from the CEBR (a friendly think tank) that suggested public spending would be £35 billion lower over the next few years had her plans been allowed to bed in. 

This all begs the question: what motive does Truss have to relive her failed premiership a year on? Step back and it was undoubtedly odd to see the former PM, ousted under such shocking circumstances, willingly marking the anniversary of her upending with a speech. 

Moreover, at the beginning of her address, Truss explained how she had no desire to reenter No 10; nor, she added, did she derive the least bit of pleasure from recounting those disastrous days. 

The implication is that her overriding motive for appearing before the Institute for Government (hardly a mass public forum) was to speak directly to her Conservative colleagues.

Thus Truss yesterday urged her party to cut benefits, cut taxes, build homes and scrap net zero commitments. “I do want the Conservative Party to be the party of small government and free markets and to make that case. My plea is to the Conservative Party. We need to advocate those policies”, she explained in the Q&A session which followed her speech.

But this begs the further question: do any of Truss’ Conservative colleagues still listen to the former PM?

The simplest answer is that some do. And the former prime minister does retain a pretty ready audience among the economically libertarian wing of the Conservative party — a faction that could still store up and sustain her beliefs for posterity. Take the Conservative Growth Group, for instance, the backbench caucus of tax-cutting MPs convened by Truss earlier this year and composed of her allies. 

Truss, therefore, is worried about the future trajectory of Conservatism in Britain and, probably privately, how her “mini-budget” will be implicated in factional battles to come. The former PM, like most observers of British politics, will understand that another Conservative leadership election could be underway within the year. And she wants to give any potential heirs and successors a head start — or at least not hold them back.

This was a speech informed by the former PM’s long-term ideological and political aims, therefore. And, in this way, Truss refused to let intellectual consistency get in the way of her carefully concocted arguments. She repeatedly rubbished “Bidenomics” and the Labour party’s plan to “copy and paste” such policies onto the UK statute book despite, on a number of other occasions, comparing the US’ economic prospects favourably to Britain’s. 

Exhibit a: “The cost of energy in Britain are twice what they are in the United States, and we have a severe shortage of housing”

Exhibit b: “According to the Growth Commission, the average person in the UK is now £9,100 worse off than the average person in the United States”.

Intellectual consistency is difficult, of course. In fact, comparably, shaping the Conservative Party’s future will likely be viewed as much easier and rather more pressing. 

So we can say with reasonable certainty that a future leadership election will contain some Trussite standard-bearer (perhaps former Brexit negotiator Lord Frost who is relatively open about his ambitions and was in the audience for Truss’ speech yesterday). 

But how successful such as candidate will be is, again, far from certain. Indeed, in one revealing comment in the Q&A portion of Truss’s IfG slot, the former PM explained: “Even these modest [cuts] did not command the support of the Conservative parliamentary party”.

In this way, here is one key takeaway from Truss’ speech: although the former PM hopes her party in opposition will emerge pliable to her ideological aims, she may only be able secure one half of this scenario.

For every time Truss appears before the nation she may just succeed in making a future election defeat for the Conservatives more likely. And in this eventuality, the former PM will struggle to be taken seriously by a party that never really embraced her mode of politics in the first place.