By Paula Keavenney (*) – The stakes could not have been higher as Liz Truss delivered her first party conference speech as prime minister. Against a backdrop of economic chaos, open party warfare and polling that shows she’s on course for a spectacular election loss, Truss insisted she was “determined to get us through the tempest”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the circumstances, the speech was short, at just 25 minutes. Pundits expected her to say little that would spook the markets or shake her audience. And, indeed, she hardly dwelt on the chaos her mini-budget triggered. Instead, she doubled down, emphasizing that growth was her main priority and the only way forward.
She linked economic growth with people’s everyday struggles and, notably, began talking of “leveling up” – a move probably designed to recall Boris Johnson’s election winning formula.
Growth, growth, growth
Truss introduced her plan to rebuild Britain through reform and deregulation, by referencing her childhood growing up in Paisley and Leeds, witnessing boarded-up shops, people turning to drugs and families not eating. “For too long, our economy has not grown as strongly as it should have,” she said, emphasizing that low growth means fewer wages, lagging regions falling even further behind and the UK falling behind other countries.
She thus positioned growth as the best – and only – strategy on individual, national and international levels. She was adamant in her support for “dynamic” Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, with whom she said she was in “complete lockstep”.
The relationship between prime minister and chancellor really has to work. Truss will have been keen to emphasize their agreement, particularly as earlier interviews hinted at some disagreement. She will also have been keen to avoid providing fault lines for rebels and opponents to chip away at, perhaps thinking of the fractious relationship former prime minister, Theresa May, had with her own chancellor, Philip Hammond.
Truss repeatedly voiced her opposition to what she called the anti-growth coalition – wherein she named Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, militant unions, think-tanks, Brexit deniers, Extinction Rebellion and the Greenpeace climate activists who disrupted the speech about 10 minutes in. Instead, she doubled down on both Brexit and levelling up, as the way to get growth going.
Though light on detail, the plan she laid out is threefold: lower taxes, bring down the national debt, and drive economic reform by deregulation and “cutting red tape”. She mentioned new investment zones around the country, explicitly naming all four nations. “This is the United Kingdom at its best,” she said. “We will face down the separatists who threaten to pull us apart, our precious union.”
Of course we would expect this at a Tory conference: it is the Conservative and Unionist party after all. And she will have been looking ahead to the forthcoming Supreme Court hearing on the Scottish government’s proposals for an independence referendum.
Truss promised to deliver on the promise of Brexit, saying that by the end of 2022, “all EU red tape will be consigned to history”. Day in, day out, she said, she is thinking about how to get the country moving, building homes, connecting to fast broadband and reliable mobile phone coverage and securing childcare.
Conservative politicians often talk about bonfire regulations and getting rid of bureaucracy. But I would argue that we rarely see any actual flames.
Growth as the solution
Truss made big claims about what her health secretary, Thérèse Coffey, will accomplish, from ensuring people have access to timely GP appointments, faster ambulances and improved emergency services in hospital to “busting the COVID backlog” of people waiting for treatment and bolstering social care.
The NHS is frequently a difficult area for the Conservatives. Opinion polls generally show Labour with a lead in this area, and the Tories criticised for cutting spending or for failing to invest in healthcare systems. At the same time, the Conservatives know how much value citizens place on the NHS and so are keen to be seen as supporting it.
Her framing throughout was that economic growth – and not higher taxes, and the government spending those might lead to – will make these improvements to the services we need. She has certainly stayed consistent on this and will be keen to make sure the Conservatives are again seen as pro-business, with clear points of difference to the Labour party. This is harder than it sounds as Labour will also support growth and, as the attendance at its recent conference showed, is reinforcing links with business.
Truss emphasized that growth was also necessary in terms of national security. She had previously pledged an increase in defense spending to 3% of GDP by 2030, which she reiterated.
She also reiterated the UK’s support for Ukraine, with strong words against Putin. “We will stand with our Ukrainian friends however long it takes,” she said. “Ukraine can win, Ukraine must win, Ukraine will win.”
Bemoaning the west’s complacency in relying on authoritarian regimes for cheap energy, she promised to reinforce energy security, mentioning more gas fields in the North Sea and renewables. She also restated her commitment to net zero and to tackling climate change.
Truss will have been aware that her government has taken knocks on this recently, with the advice she reportedly gave to King Charles to not attend COP27, the forthcoming UN climate change conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
While the speech writers would have been keen to make sure environmental concern was included, for Conservatives this can be a difficult line to walk. Vote Blue go Green may have been an earlier slogan but the party struggles to balance concern for the environment with its general tax cutting approach.
Lastly, Truss promised to strengthen borders and expand the Rwanda scheme. She nodded to the Home Secretary Suella Braverman who, she promised, is working “to make sure no European judge can overrule us”. Leaders often need enemies for their speeches. The choice here of not just a judge, but a “European judge” will have gone down well with the party faithful.
An election-winning strategy?
She started and ended the speech talking to her listeners as her friends. And she made special mention of the West Midlands’ elected Conservative mayor and others up and down the country, saying, “This is what modern conservatism looks like, positive, enterprising, successful”.
She repeatedly spoke directly to the British people, saying, “You know best how to spend your own money and get on in life.” She emphasized her belief in freedom, in fair play and in their potential. “I stand here as first PM of the country to have gone to a comprehensive school,” she claimed. “We have huge talent. We’re not making enough of it.” On this, she has already been called out, with commentators pointing out that both Gordon Brown and Theresa May attended similar schools.
Truss mentioned white van drivers, hairdressers and accountants, saying “I’m on your side”, while berating protesters and strikers. Seeing strikes criticized in a Tory conference speech is another, unsurprising way of setting up an enemy to attack. She will certainly have been aware that attendance today was affected by a strike, with many leaving early to avoid the rail shut-down.
She positioned herself as having arrived in a Downing Street adrift and being the only one able to fix it. And she claimed that with the energy bill cap the UK was doing more to protect people “than any other country in Europe”.
There was a lot in her leadership campaign speeches, and her first prime ministerial speech, about immediate action. She thus framed her mini-budget as the quick action needed. There will have been people in the hall who voted for her on that basis.
Boosting growth, she said, by investing in roads, rail, energy and broadband is necessary. “We have no alternative if we want to get the economy moving,” she said. “Moving” and “delivering” were key words in conference material.
Truss clearly wants to portray herself as active and in charge. She went into this conference needing to calm and inspire the troops, as well as reassure the nation. Time, and next week’s parliamentary business, will tell if she has succeeded.
(*) A member of the Liberal Democrats Partners and Senior Lecturer in Politics, Edge Hill University