A bit like her 44-day premiership, Liz Truss’s big intervention on Monday at the Conservative party’s conference in Manchester came laced with chaos. Whatever else she does in politics, she doesn’t do boring.
There was a dramatic scrum to gain entry to Truss’s Great British Growth Rally event, which was due to kick off at 12.30pm. Long queues of party members snaked down the stairs of the Midland Hotel and around the bar. Truss’s time in Number 10 may have been historically brief, but her celebrity-like appeal to fawning Tory members stubbornly endures.
The doors to the hotel’s Trafford suite, where the rally was held, closed 15 minutes early, as hundreds of disappointed Tories were left outside. Inside, journalists crammed into every nook as Truss appealed for tax cuts alongside other standard bearers of the party’s economic right wing.
But while other speakers, including former cabinet members Jacob Rees-Mogg and Priti Patel, did their best to rouse the troops, there was no doubting whose show this really was. Beaming at all around her, Truss seemed to be glowing as all the attention focused on her.
The event was timed to cause maximum discomfort for the UK government’s relatively moderate chancellor of the exchequer, Jeremy Hunt. He was due on stage across at the conference centre’s main stage about 90 minutes after the start of Truss’s rally. Everybody knew he would resist her calls for tax cuts. Yet she had already set the agenda before he spoke.
In the Trafford suite, there was a Trumpian air to proceedings. Truss spoke in front of banners calling for the government to Make Britain Grow Again, echoing the former US president’s political sloganeering.
She had three messages, or chunks of economic red meat, for the assembled Tory grassroots. “Axe the tax, cut the bills and build the houses,” she said, calling for reductions in corporation tax, the exploitation of British gas to cut energy costs for consumers, and a vast house-building plan.
Truss delivered her speech for more than 20 minutes without referring to notes. “I’m calling on the chancellor to put corporation tax down to 19 per cent. And if we can get it lower, even better,” she said. She decried what she insisted was an exodus of businesses from a high-tax Britain: “We need to be hungry to get those businesses back.”
She told the crowd that Britain had “50 years of sustainable gas” lying untapped under the ground, which could be used to cut household bills. She also called on the government to draft policies to ensure 500,000 new houses were built per year.
“Let’s stop taxing and banning things, and instead, start making and building things. I want everyone in this room to unleash their inner conservative,” Truss said, finishing with a flourish. Rees-Mogg and Patel followed her to the lectern, but despite their game efforts, neither was as successful as Truss at drawing roars from the crowd.
The former prime minister swept out of the room surrounded by a frenetic media scrum. “Are you undermining the prime minister, Liz?” asked one reporter. Truss simply flashed her an unbreakable smile and continued shuffling towards the door.
Soon afterwards, the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak was in the front row at the main stage as Hunt gave his set-piece address. A few in the crowd tried to start a standing ovation for Sunak upon his arrival, but it quickly petered out.
Hunt announced a civil service hiring freeze and a rise to £11 of the national living wage. But, he insisted, tax cuts would have to wait. He tried his best to rouse the Tory faithful, with criticism of the banks for closing accounts of people they found “politically incorrect”. The speech was politely received but, in truth, there seemed little enthusiasm in the room.
Seconds after it finished, Sunak walked out through a nearby fire exit. Rumours swirled that the prime minister had already decided to cancel the Manchester leg of Britain’s HS2 high-speed rail network. He may choose to deliver the news on Wednesday in the city that will be most affected. Even some Tories will be furious at him.
There are challenges to Sunak’s vision emerging from within the party. Truss’s vocal interventions are not his only worry.