As Conference got going on Sunday, one MP reflected in expectation of the PM’s speech later in the week that “The best she can do is just drone on for an hour”.
Liz Truss did an awful lot better than that in her speech on Wednesday. After what had been a torrid few days up in Birmingham, it looks like she has possibly just about clawed things back from the brink – though exactly how much breathing space it has really brought her very much remains to be seen. It is unlikely it will have done enough to completely reset where the Conservative Party currently finds itself – which, for the avoidance of all doubt, is certainly not in a happy place – whilst the polls remain so completely dire.
However, the mood in the hall as she delivered her closing note yesterday to CPC22 was positive, buoyant even, and there was plenty of enthusiastic clapping during her speech. She had an incredibly tricky three-fold task to pull off: reuniting warring Tories who are at sixes and sevens over the 45p tax U-turn and benefits uprating; convincing the public the Government is on their side, and steadying the markets.
It’s the economy, stupid
To work backwards through the three – that last one she has seemingly pulled off. The overall economic backdrop remains pretty grim. ONS figures put growth at 0.2% (we are mercifully not in recession – yet), inflation is running at 9.9% and the Bank of England interest rate is 2.25%. But the pound is – at the time of writing – remaining somewhat steady at around $1.13. Those markets received this speech an awful lot better than they did the ‘mini-Budget’ a couple of weeks ago. The clearest possible message was sent to them as the PM unequivocally committed to the Bank of England’s independence in setting interest rates, and that she and the Chancellor would continue to work together ‘in lockstep’.
To some degree it is her own fault that there has been so much speculation over the last few days that Kwarsi Kwarteng would have to ‘fall on his sword’ – she after all had told broadcaster Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday that scrapping the 45p was a ‘decision the Chancellor made’. He is safe for now, but over the last few days has certainly shown little of the ebullience that is his leitmotif, and it will be indicative to see how quickly it returns.
His own keynote speech on Monday was extremely flat and without any announcements. He spoke again, as the PM did in her speech, of the commitment to fiscal responsibility and running a tight ship. But we don’t as yet have any more detail as to how and where more paring in public spending might land. The ‘lean state’ that Truss spoke of yesterday arguably already looks pretty skinny, and former Civil Service colleagues in various departments are extremely nervous about the ‘efficiency savings’ they are expecting to be asked to make.
In terms of total managed expenditure, the three big beasts are the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Health and Social Care and the Department for Education. Looked at in the round, the only real place to go for potential ‘savings’ is DWP (of which more later). Any savings from other departments – a few hundred million here, a few hundred million there – will not be sufficient to cover what the Government’s mini-Budget set out, but will still be painful.
‘We have got your back’
There were some very solidly traditional Conservative messages in the PM’s speech: the Party will always be one of low taxes; when the state plays too big a role, people feel smaller; backing business to the hilt; hard work must be rewarded and our children given a better future; our greatest days lie ahead. It just about avoided slipping into pure sloganism bingo. There was nothing here to scare the horses, and it will have been of reassurance to the Party faithful, and the Government will hope, to the wider public.
Because it’s otherwise been an oddly policy-lite Conference – with the announcements that have been made being of a slightly motley nature, and largely in any case overshadowed by negative headlines about internecine warfare.
There was some ‘red meat’ stuff about expanding tagging for offenders and maintaining protecting single sex spaces in prisons – and the proposed curbs on public sector strikes have gone down well with the faithful and right-of-centre/middle ground media. Expanding the small business threshold from 250 to 500 employees should help cut the costs of regulation for nearly 40,000 businesses – though it is slightly less clear what replacing the existing GDPR regime with a British data protection scheme might yet achieve.
Notable by absence was anything of great note in the energy/environment space. A commitment to delivering a ‘world-leading first fusion energy programme’ by building a prototype fusion power plant by 2040 felt quite small-fry, in the scheme of things. There was also an announcement about increasing the Environment Agency’s maximum fines for water companies that illegally release wastewater and sewage from £250,000 to £250 million – but very little mention of Net Zero.
It should be noted, also, that the Government’s three priorities have changed. They used to be growth, energy bills and the NHS. They are now ‘GROWTH GROWTH GROWTH’ – though the Health Secretary and Deputy PM Thérèse Coffey did come in for a good dollop of praise from the PM, and a reiteration of the commitment to two-week GP waiting times. There has also remained throughout Conference a (verbal at least) commitment to the Levelling-Up agenda.
Keeping the show on the road
Many MPs just didn’t bother to go to Conference, and some of those that did (and are certainly not usually of the rambunctious variety) were a mixture of bitterness, anger and something akin to resignation (“it’s fatal, the damage has been done”).
These are the same folk who will be returning to Parliament on Monday – and will be needed to support the PM’s agenda as it further takes shape. If planning reform – as the PM yesterday intimated – is to be one of the first big ticket items, the whips are going to have their work cut out. On that front, enforcing Party discipline seems rather much focused on the ‘stick’ side of things at present. If a few carrots don’t materialize, things are going to fall apart very quickly.
Even leaving aside the backbenchers (it was only ever a matter of time before big beasts Gove and Shapps went rogue) the fact Cabinet at this point seems to be only somewhat loosely keeping things together is extremely problematic.
Admittedly the PM was the one who drove a coach and horses through the notion of collective responsibility when she let drop that Cabinet hadn’t discussed the 45p rate. But even so, to have a serving Cabinet Minister in the form of Penny Mordaunt apparently pre-rebelling over the benefits reform (and whether uprating is pegged to wages or inflation – the former amounting to a cut in real terms) before any decision has been announced is quite something.
The latest YouGov polling puts Truss at minus 59 approval rating (Boris’ at the end was minus 53). So, the Conservatives have three options. One: leave her there and hope things get ‘better’. Two: somehow engineer a coronation replacement and cross fingers that the country wears its fifth PM in six years. Three: throw it all up in the air, call a General Election, force Labour to take control and deal with the world as it is, with the gamble of it ensuring they only serve one term.
Options two and three do as yet still feel drastic, but the Conservative Party does somewhat, at times, have the propensity to shoot itself in face rather than the foot.
Conference might be over, but the PM’s problems certainly have not gone away.