The Tories’ huge gamble offers a fabulous opportunity Keir Starmer’s party must seize

<span>Photograph: Dylan Martinez/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Dylan Martinez/AFP/Getty Images

Boris who? Theresa who? David who? The names escape her. Rishi who? Philip who? George who? The names elude him. Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, the devil-may-care duo of Downing Street, declare themselves an audacious break with the failed orthodoxies of the past and bold heralds of a new era for Britain.

After the chancellor had finished unveiling his debt-financed bonanza of tax cuts on Friday, I heard one of the cabinet describe this as “a new administration” that had “only been in office for two weeks”. This is one of the oldest tricks in the Conservative playbook. Declare that you have arrived with a radically novel agenda to rescue Britain from the appalling mess inherited from your predecessors and hope that a frenetic display of activity will dizzy the public into forgetting that those predecessors were also Tories. In the case of Ms Truss, the feat can only succeed if voters are induced not to care that she was first given a ministerial job by David Cameron and has sat in the cabinet for eight of the dozen years that the Tories have been in power. In the case of Mr Kwarteng, he’d prefer us not to recall that he voted for every one of the Conservative budgets since 2010, the budgets he now repudiates for dooming Britain to a “vicious cycle of stagnation”.

The prime minister wants this to be seen as Month One of the Truss revolution. She does not want this to be seen as Month One Hundred and Forty Eight of Conservative rule in which her chancellor took the most colossal gamble with the nation’s finances and its people’s livelihoods because all the previous Tory bets on the economy haven’t come off.

The latest “Plan for Growth” published by Mr Kwarteng is the seventh attempt by the Tories to find a successful recipe. They began their time in power with George Osborne’s grisly gruel of fiscal austerity, which he served up in the name of bringing down debt. Now the dish is fiscal incontinence and a blowout binge of borrowing. The Tories have had so many approaches to the economy in the past 12 years that the snake has finally swallowed its own tail.

This presents Sir Keir Starmer and his team with a job to do and opportunities to seize at Labour’s party conference this week. One task is to hammer the message that this is not a fresh government, but an aged one, to join the dots from the Osborne squeeze to the Kwarteng gamble. As one former Labour cabinet minister puts it: “What we have to do strategically is attach Liz Truss to the past dozen years.”

Labour’s job is made easier by the way the Tory leader and her chancellor think. On Planet Truss, the economy is ailing not because we’ve had a dozen years of Conservative rule, but because we have not had a government that was rightwing enough until now. So the top rate of tax on the highest earners will be scrapped while ministers press down on the wages of public sector workers. So bankers’ bonuses will be uncapped while low-paid employees are cajoled to work longer hours. So they will load the vast cost of the energy price cap on to taxpayers of the future while refusing to levy more from the bumper profits of the fossil fuel giants.

One of the questions voters most often ask themselves about politicians is: whose side are you on? Being on the side that wants to put more money in the pockets of the already wealthy and the cash-gushing energy majors is not self-evidently the side to be on if you want to win the next election. This is a target-rich environment for Labour. Its frontbench team should find an alternative vocation if they can’t fully exploit it.

The political gamble of the prime minister and chancellor is that most voters won’t mind too much if the rich get richer so long as they feel their own lives have improved. That all depends on the Truss/Kwarteng formula succeeding. If its main effect is to fuel more inflation and trigger higher interest rates, the average person will be left feeling even worse off. Previous attempts by Tory chancellors to “dash for growth” have smashed into a brick wall of disaster. There are more examples than the “Barber boom”, which led to a horrendous bust in the early 1970s. It is also worth recalling what happened in 1963. Then, as now, the Tories had been in power for 12 years and tried to engineer some popularity with a giveaway budget. Just over a year later, they were ejected by the electorate. Reggie Maudling, the outgoing Tory chancellor, left a note for his Labour replacement that read: “Good luck, old cock… Sorry to leave it in such a mess.”

MPs are asking themselves whether Mr Kwarteng has been brilliant or bonkers. The markets are saying bonkers

Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, has the backing of a lot of expert opinion when she depicts this as another dangerous Tory experiment that will end in tears. Mr Kwarteng prevented the Office for Budget Responsibility, the independent invigilator established by one of his Conservative predecessors, from publishing its assessment of the impact of what he has done. That’s like a man with a dodgy motor refusing to submit it for an MoT. The chancellor didn’t have the power to prevent financial markets from jerking their thumbs to the floor by heavily selling gilts and sterling. Conservative MPs are asking themselves whether Mr Kwarteng has been brilliant or bonkers. The markets are saying bonkers.

The chances of the Downing Street duo failing even on their own terms look high. In that case, the Tories will have sent borrowing ballooning and handed a lot of money to the largest companies and wealthiest segments of society without doing anything to improve either Britain’s long-term growth rate or the quality of life of most of its population.

One rule for the rich and another for everyone else. The reckless last roll of the dice by a desperate government of chancers. These are classic lines for Labour to deploy against the Conservatives.

There is also a bigger opportunity for Sir Keir’s party. That is to fundamentally shift the terms of political trade in Labour’s favour. By making growth the be-all of this government, Ms Truss and her chancellor have promoted it to the first-order issue of British politics. This hasn’t been so for a long time. Questions of identity have been dominant in recent years and in a way that has done Labour no favours. The great debate about the status of Scotland led to the evaporation of most of Labour’s Scottish MPs. Brexit split the party and divided it from some of its traditional support to the great benefit of the Tories. By betting both her party’s electoral fortunes and the nation’s finances on kickstarting the economy, Ms Truss has chosen to make growth the decisive arena of political struggle.

She and her chancellor may not have the correct solution, but they do ask the right question. Britain has suffered a sluggardly growth rate for more than a decade and that lies at the heart of many of the country’s problems. We have been trapped in a cycle of poor productivity, low pay and high taxes. It has been accompanied by, and is part explained by, toxic levels of inequality.

That creates the space for Labour to make a compelling pitch for its alternative plan for growth. This emphasises industries that are vital to the transition to a green economy. In an interview with Sir Keir, he says he is committing a Labour government to generating all electricity from clean power by the end of this decade, an ambition designed to be good for the planet, technological development, energy security and jobs. Labour also talks about how it would catalyse more private investment, raise educational attainment and skills levels, improve infrastructure and focus more attention on what the shadow chancellor likes to call “the everyday economy”.

Many economists and business people think Labour has a more credible strategy for improving growth in a sustainable way than the Tories’ sugar-rush of tax cuts on the never-never. What Labour now has to do is convey why it has superior ideas in a way that resonates with the typical voter. As one senior Labour figure puts it: “We have to convince people down the pub that Labour has something to say to them.” Ms Reeves will have the chance to do just that when she addresses the party conference tomorrow.

Growth is now the central battleground of British politics. It may not be going too far to say that this is where the next general election will be lost and won.

• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Politcal Commentator of the Observer