Political speeches can influence voters or MPs; they can honour ideals and celebrate membership of a party. Liz Truss chose none of these in her address to activists at the Conservative party’s annual conference. She preferred instead to defend her unpopular policies that promote growth at any cost, and blame a decade of anaemic economic expansion on those who – rightly – counsel caution about the trade-offs involved. The prime minister’s speech shows the extent to which she sees politics as civil war, where everything boils down to loyalty. The new “enemies of enterprise” is just a Trussian rebranding of the toxic “enemies of the people” rhetoric.
Ms Truss wanted to battle opponents outside the Tory party, not those within it. She has been on the losing side of that fight all week. Instead she chose to define her enemies in the country and seek conflict with them. But Britain’s poor economic performance is not down to an “anti-growth coalition” of podcasters, trade unions and thinktanks. Surely if one wants to view success through the lens of growth then those guilty of failing to produce it were sitting in front of the prime minister in the conference hall.
In a healthy democracy, opinions need to be tested in debate. The trouble for Ms Truss is that the Conservatives don’t have winning arguments – and the public knows it. Dumping sewage into rivers is not just opposed by eco-protesters. Campaigns are being organised by local residents. Strikes by teachers, doctors, nurses and firefighters are happening not because public servants don’t want growth, but because they want better pay after a decade of flat wages.
Seen from this vantage point, both compassionate conservatism and Brexit were political projects that helped to blunt the charge that the Tories were just about enriching the elite at the expense of the rest and destroying the sense that everyone is in the same boat. With Ms Truss, the mask has slipped. She is determined to privilege property and shareholder interests over society. That is what her growth plan is about. Low-tax investment zones that exempt areas, including national parks, from planning and environmental regulations ought to allow for local consent – not be rammed through by ministers who hide behind a local council’s approval or an MP’s assent. A policy that sees fracking companies polling residents for drilling approval in exchange for money is one that smacks of desperation.
In a post-Covid world of rising costs, the country needed to be brought together. Ms Truss’s plans may do so, but only by uniting the country against her. The prime minister sought confrontations that no one wants or needs. Conservative MPs see that their party is being increasingly viewed by the electorate as harsh and uncaring. Driving this is the public’s perception that Conservatives are not committed to the improvement of public services, but are obsessed with tax cuts, which Ms Truss said were “the right thing to do morally and economically”.
The prime minister’s critics in the party are likely to be emboldened by her doubling down. Ms Truss seems unaware of the electoral backlash she risks. MPs will begin to worry about the Tory brand becoming associated with greed and selfishness in the eyes of the public. An approach wedded to private affluence surrounded by public squalor will convince few voters, with inevitable consequences for morale within the party and electoral support outside it. The country deserves so much better than this.