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Known Unknowns: The Conservative Party's first Conference under Liz Truss

Known Unknowns: The Conservative Party's first Conference under Liz Truss

Conservative Party Conference (Illustration by Tracy Worrall)

7 min read

As the Conservatives head to Birmingham, Paul Goodman sets the scene for the party’s first Conference under new leader Liz Truss

The best way of thinking one’s way into this year’s Conservative Party Conference is not to start with how it will be – but, rather, with how it might have been.

For less than a month ago, Boris Johnson was still prime minister and Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was on the throne. Yet within a single week, Britain had a new monarch, King Charles III, and a new Prime Minister, Liz Truss.

Truss was set for her first Conference as party leader in any event, but the death of the late Queen will now help to shape the proceedings.

Truss will need to be light on her feet this week

The Sunday afternoon opening session of the four-day conference is sometimes used to get a leader’s potential rivals out of the way. They are put up to speak then, or in other wilderness slots later in the week, to keep their profile low.

This year, they are more likely to be used for tributes to the late Queen: a Conservative mark of respect for the longest-reigning monarch in the history of the nation.

But the shadow of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, and the sense of a country moving into a new era, will hang heavily over the Conference. So there may be fewer champagne flutes at Conference receptions – especially if Cabinet ministers are present, photographers are prowling, or both.

Other reasons why the mood is likely to be sombre need little introduction. Truss’s new government has torn up almost half a century of Conservative orthodoxy, and is gambling on an economic experiment unprecedented in modern Britain.

As I write, the pound is crashing and gilt yields are soaring. The market expectation seems to be that the Bank of England will raise interest rates in response. It isn’t clear that the government wants it to do so.

By the time you read this article, much may have changed. But a political crisis of the first order during Conference can’t be ruled out, featuring an emergency interest rate rise and even crisis spending cuts to reassure the markets.

The fundamentals are unpromising for Truss. The Conservatives are on their fourth term. Labour has a double-digit lead in the polls.

The new Conservative leader has no electoral mandate for legislation arising from her leadership election pledges, and is saddled with a Tory manifesto from 2019 whose flavour is contrary to her instincts.

For while Johnson saw economics as a branch of the light entertainment industry (the manifesto promised more doctors, nurses, police, GP appointments and just about everything), Truss views it as a display shelf for free market economics.

Furthermore, she wasn’t the choice of Tory MPs: indeed, she won the smallest proportion of their votes of any successful leadership contender ever under the present system.

Nor was she the choice of party activists, at least if the polls were right. That was Kemi Badenoch – sent to International Trade in Truss’s Cabinet reshuffle, far away from the former’s favourite cultural stomping ground.

Mention of the shuffle brings me to the new government in the round. The new Prime Minister has chosen, despite commanding less than a third of the vote among Tory MPs, to pack the Cabinet with an overwhelming majority of her own supporters. I can doubtless be accused of cooking the books, since I’m counting among these rival candidates who eventually took the knee, or their supporters. But of those ministers entitled to attend Cabinet, only one, Michael Ellis, is on record as voting for Rishi Sunak during summer’s leadership election.

Truss’s bold decision would perfectly sum up her approach to the challenging situation in which she finds herself, were it not that Ferdinand Foch, the First World War general, did so even better in his time.

“My centre is giving way, my right is in retreat; situation excellent. I shall attack,” he said – and so it is that the new Prime Minister, while authorising one of the biggest state interventions on record, is compensating for it elsewhere.

Truss is trying to change the political conversation from reducing the deficit in order to boost growth... to boosting growth in order to reduce the deficit.

After 10 years of what the Institute of Fiscal Studies has described as a “lost decade” of earnings growth, many Conservatives are willing to throw the dice, and gamble on a “dash for growth” paid for by higher borrowing.

So the Prime Minister is likely to get a warm reception in her speech to the Party Conference on Wednesday (Conservative leaders always do) and there will be no lack of support on the fringe for “Trussonomics”, especially from the party’s right.

She will also be boosted if Johnson renounces his ancient habit, formed in his pre-prime ministerial days, of turning up on the fringe, kicking off a media circus, and so hurling a wrecking ball into the Conference grid. He is reportedly not planning to attend this year, and Sunak is also among a number of senior Tories who have said they will avoid the event. But Michael Gove, not appointed to Cabinet by Truss, is coming – and the fringe, as ever, is where most of the political action will be at.

Indeed, there is potential for the Prime Minister to be squeezed at both ends. For if there will be support for her on the fringe, there will also be opposition.

On the one side, there will be Sunakites, who believe that Truss has gone too far – tearing down the temple of deficit reduction built by Margaret Thatcher and sustained by David Cameron. On the other, there is the European Research Group and its kindred spirits, who think that Truss is travelling in the right direction, but hasn’t gone far enough.

Somewhere in the middle will be interests and lobbies opposed to different parts of Truss’s supply side programme – planning liberalisation, bankers’ bonuses uncapped, less environmental protection, lower childcare ratios.

Expect calls on the fringe for the government to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol, abandon net-zero, wage a “war on woke” – and, above all, drop new plans to relax some immigration controls.

Then there is the impact of potential unknowns – both known and unknown unknowns, as former United States Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once put it – on the Conference. With an escalation in the crisis in the markets potentially continuing through the course of the Conference, Tory planners may have to tear up the grid and improvise off the hoof.

The Prime Minister might, in such circumstances, take a leaf out of Cameron’s book from the 2008 Conservative Conference, which took place while the financial crisis was breaking. Cameron made two platform speeches that year – with one specifically addressing the economic needs of the moment. Truss will need to be light on her feet this week.

The other key speech from the platform will be that of the new Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, whose position has become precarious. Inexperienced Home Secretary Suella Braverman also provokes curiosity.

The usual instinct of Tory activists is to rally publicly round the leader in a crisis. So the nearer one is to the Conference, if it comes, the better for the Prime Minister, in all likelihood – strange though that may sound. Truss is new to office and most Tory activists, like many voters, will want to give her a chance in government.

We may therefore be denied a Conservative Conference as flammable, passionate and divisive as those of the early 1980s or 1990s – but it could nonetheless turn out to be as momentous as any of the most riveting ones of the past.

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