Danny Rye Associate Professor of Politics, Liverpool Hope University
Voters, and (dare I say) many students like to say that politicians should be more independent, less beholden to a ‘party line’. Yet it remains that governments need discipline, loyalty and trust, and voters will tend to punish division at the ballot box.
For governments to be effective, discipline is essential. Cabinet ministers are expected to support the government line, even if they may have argued against it in private (the doctrine of ‘collective responsibility’) and since in the British political system, governments govern largely through Parliament by passing legislation, it needs the loyal support of its MPs. And the party relies on the trust and commitment of its ‘foot-soldiers’, grass-roots members, to get their message out on the doorstep (something which remains important even in the age of social media and instant communication).
However, what we saw at the Conservative conference in Birmingham this year was a party in which these appear to be breaking down. The root of its troubles came just ten days earlier. The government began its ‘new era’ on Friday 23rd September when Kwasi Kwarteng, the chancellor, laid out its economic approach: a growth-driven agenda, based on tax cuts funded by borrowing. However, the markets didn’t like it, with sterling and government bonds going into freefall. The impression was of a government losing control of the economy. The public and political reaction was strong, and seemed to catch Truss and Kwarteng by surprise.
What could have been a triumphant debut for Liz Truss as leader and Prime Minister, therefore, became a litany of troubles:
MPs were in open rebellion against government policy, particularly over unfunded tax-cuts for the wealthiest. This was promptly reversed, and even the leader herself seemed unable to back her Chancellor in TV interviews.
There was more criticism about the apparent unwillingness to commit to uprating working-age benefits in line with inflation, including from Cabinet ministers like Penny Mordaunt and Robert Buckland.
There was confusion over key policy announcements: would the government bring forward its more detailed fiscal plans or not? No one seemed to know.
Party members – who let’s not forget voted for Truss over the MP’s favourite Rishi Sunak – were publicly complaining in a conference session with Party Chairman, Jake Berry, that they were ‘sick and tired’ of having to defend the actions of Conservative MPs and ministers.
Worse for Truss, voters appear to be rapidly losing confidence in her government. One poll from YouGov put the Conservatives 33 points behind Labour. Ten recent polls put the Labour lead at 25 points on average.
So, will her speech on Tuesday help to turn any of this around?
Getting a grip on policy, to be clear and decisive and show a clear sense of direction, would be a good start. Clarity is no guarantee of support, though. The 45p rate cut was pretty clear, but it didn’t make it any more popular. However, if you want people to follow you, it can help if they can see where you are going.
To some extent, the speech did this, albeit it was short on detail. She insisted that her plans for lower taxes and a ‘leaner state’ were the right ones, and would lead to ‘growing the pie’ for everyone. Presumably this is what she meant when she paid lip-service to ‘Levelling-up … in a Conservative way’. There was a call to have faith: ‘whenever there’s change, there’s disruption’ she said, suggesting that sticking to the plan would eventually be ‘worth it’. Not quite as elegant a phrase as ‘the lady’s not for turning’, perhaps, but a similar message. She will hope this restores the faith of activists for now.
She also addressed the speculation that she might make the Chancellor a fall-guy for the reaction to the not-so-mini-budget, when she declared that ‘the Chancellor and I are in complete lock-step’ in pushing ahead with their plans for reform. If, as they hope, the economic news starts to get better and things turn around, perhaps voters and MPs in fear of losing their seats might be won around.
However, some will (not unreasonably) claim that she has no mandate for such a radical change of direction from the Johnson government. Former Cabinet Minister, Boris Johnson loyalist nonpareil, and Truss supporter Nadine Dorries told The Times on Thursday that the new Prime Minister had made some “big mistakes’” and should not be abandoning the policies that voters supported when they elected Johnson in 2019. Moreover, the fact that she has already demonstrated her willingness to u-turn will encourage those who wish to see more changes.
One of the surest ways to bind a group together, is by identifying a common foe. Often, electoral opponents are enough. But in a populist move, perhaps inspired again by Margaret Thatcher, Truss went looking for more ‘enemies within’. Helpfully provided with an illustration by two Greenpeace protestors interrupting her speech, she denounced the ‘Anti-growth Coalition’ which included assorted political parties, militant unions, environmental groups, commentators and, mysteriously ‘vested interests masquerading as think-tanks’ (presumably this doesn’t include those she worked for in the past): ‘they don’t understand the British people’ she railed. The implication, of course, being that she does.
Does being populist make you popular with voters? The polls suggest otherwise. Labour now leads on the vital question of economic competence, usually the Conservatives’ most potent weapon. The difficulty Truss has now is that the image of her and her government as divided and incompetent may already be becoming set in the public mind. It may already be too late. From that point of view, perhaps, it’s ‘growth, growth, growth’ or bust for Truss.
This was originally published on Liverpool Hope University’s ‘Expert Comment’ Page.