The “nasty party” is back. After the Conservatives devoted years of hard work to shaking off that label, Liz Truss has restored it overnight. Under Truss, the Tories are no longer governing for the nation. They are a sect — and it’s not even clear who they represent.
“Let’s get them removed,” Truss snapped icily, as two earnest and clearly harmless young women unfurled a Greenpeace banner in the middle of her party conference speech. Tony Blair, David Cameron or Boris Johnson would have defused the situation with a smile. For Truss, it was a gift to her narrative, that Britain is being held back by an “anti-growth coalition” of eco-loons, “militant unions”, “Brexit deniers”, “talking heads” and the opposition — who, in case she hasn’t noticed, are way ahead in the polls.
Watching her speak, I felt a chill. I wasn’t surprised by her failure to apologise for disastrous economic mismanagement, or by her patronising nursery-school lecture that we can all get a bigger slice if we grow the pie. What spooked me was her portrayal of anyone who disagrees with her as an enemy — an enemy of growth, an enemy of the state.
What the country needs at the moment is calm, stability and optimism. Yet this government has defined itself against almost all of us: civil servants, students, doctors who don’t see enough patients, pundits who “taxi from north London town houses to the BBC studio” (I cycle), people who don’t work hard enough, low-skilled immigrants, the 64 per cent of people who now think Brexit is going badly and even those of her own colleagues who feel it’s wrong to index-link the state pension while failing to index welfare benefits.
This is iconoclasm for its own sake and zealotry with no credo. It was vindictive of Truss to purge the cabinet of its few remaining talents because they didn’t give her sufficiently full-throated backing in the leadership contest. It was also foolish. She has made an enemy of Michael Gove, who has already forced her to U-turn on cutting the top rate of tax, and now aims to stop her cutting welfare. Her mantra is “deliver”, but few of her ministers have a clue how to actually expedite “more roads, faster broadband, affordable childcare”. Her chief of staff is a PR man with no Whitehall experience, who advised the affable Zac Goldsmith during a nasty, failed campaign for the London mayoralty.
Even the usually sensible Thérèse Coffey has adopted a bullying tone as health secretary, just when the government should be in listening mode. Adding yet another target for the NHS won’t help people see a GP. Nor is it consistent with this government’s stated aim of reducing bureaucracy — unless it’s only “EU red tape” that matters?
But nothing is consistent from this government. Truss professes to want a small state, but her energy package dwarfs both the 2008 bank bailout and the 2020 furlough. This package should be getting far more scrutiny. She claims her chancellor has “an iron grip on the national finances” but he is presiding over an untargeted, two-year blank cheque to everyone including the richest — while refusing to contemplate a windfall tax, or any proper strategy to reduce energy demand. Meanwhile, the prime minister states “I do believe in sound money”, having caused a run on the pound.
Four weeks in to her reign, it feels as though the party is already over. Not only did many Tory MPs avoid the Birmingham conference, even many of the usual protesters couldn’t be bothered to show up. Delegates usually endure menacing crowds and deafening music. But this year I only had to navigate a sprinkling of people waving EU flags, and a band playing the Benny Hill theme tune.
Almost every Tory MP now fears a landslide defeat at the next election. Truss allies maintain that her mistake was not to roll the pitch for her “mini” Budget, that the markets will calm down and the energy crisis will abate. They point out that Gordon Brown was thought to be done for in 2007, but shored things up enough to deprive David Cameron of a majority in 2010. Others think the best hope of saving their seats in 2024 is to install a new leader, either “Rishi by Christmas” or an emollient caretaker like Kit Malthouse. Those who want to resurrect Johnson are underestimating, I think, the level of fury that he backed Truss in a naked revenge attack on Sunak.
The backbench 1922 committee would need to change its rules, but that is perfectly possible, especially since Truss has no mandate for her policies. As the Greenpeace banner asked, “Who Voted For This?” The answer is, less than 82,000 members of the Conservative party, which won in 2019 on a very different manifesto.
Shortly before Truss delivered her speech, I shared a tepid coffee with a brilliant young woman who had hoped, until recently, to become a Tory MP. We talked about how we’d each formed our political views. I realised I’d always disliked the left, because it seemed so full of hate. I remembered how my own godfather, a Labour MP, defected to the SDP in the 1980s in anguish over hard-left viciousness. Then I watched a Conservative prime minister pour scorn upon the nation.
How will Truss face down the nurses who are about to strike, when we will all be with them in spirit on the picket lines? How will she restore our country’s standing in the world, when she has trashed it? The revolution is eating itself. And for as long as she lasts, we are all collateral damage.