By Moray Macdonald, Group Head of Public Policy
This piece also appeared in PR Week.
Conservative Party Conference 2022 was an unusual affair. It was always going to be.
We have a major war in Europe that is threatening how we have been used to living. We can’t be sure that we can afford to heat our homes or that we will have enough gas to last the winter. And that’s before we start worrying about what Vladimir Putin might do next. And of course all of this follows the turbulence of Brexit and Covid-19.
Western politics has for a long time been in a comfortable place; we’ve all become rather used to the era of cheap money and easy times. Let’s face it, none of us really likes change and all of a sudden we are faced with what we have been used to being thrown in the air and shaken around.
The Tories have been in power for twelve years, a pretty long time by most electoral cycles. This was always going to be a difficult period and where trust in the government was waning. A new leader making bold and different decisions wasn’t going to make things any easier. What Liz Truss wants you to understand is that these changes are necessary in order to get to the prize of growth. The Conservative Party Conference slogan was “Get Britain Moving”. It might better be interpreted as “hold on to your hats it’s going to be a bumpy ride”.
Before the PM’s speech the atmosphere at conference was odd. The place was buzzing, as it always is when you have large groups of like-minded people together. But dig a little below the surface and there was a feeling of resignation in the air that time in Government might be up.
Some attendees described the conference as feeling fractured and confusing. It certainly felt odd that many Ministers and MPs were missing from conference or not as high profile as you’d usually expect, apart from the few who craved the limelight – Penny Mordaunt, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove. All playing quite different games.
Lots of party members didn’t even hang around for the Leader’s speech, but in fairness that had more to do with getting home before the rail strike. Organisers were so worried about numbers on the last day that MPs were ordered to be present in the hall.
The unenviable benefit that Liz Truss had in advance of her conference speech was that she had a low bar to meet expectations. That bar was met and you could feel the sense of relief amongst party members and MPs in the conference hall. She got through it. The members felt like they got through it. Maybe there is some hope after all.
This was never going to be a speech unveiling major new party policies, and it didn’t. If you were paying attention during Liz Truss’ leadership campaign then none of the speech would have surprised you at all. It was all about growth growth growth.
Truss’ full-throttled growth agenda should rightly be popular with Tories, but many Tories will be wondering if the agenda can really be delivered. Firstly, time is not on their side. This is the kind of programme that needed to be launched at the start of a five-year term, not when you have two years to go and with lots of other distractions. There’s a real risk that the beneficial impact of the new approach won’t be felt until after the next election.
Secondly, Truss has talked about delivery delivery delivery. Again, a laudable and much needed drive throughout the public sector. But the forces against that are massive, and Liz Truss knows that only too well – she called them the “anti-growth coalition”. Some of the members of that group are obvious – Labour, SNP, opponents of Brexit, trade unions and protestors. But there are many others who are anti-growth and some of them within her own party, for example those opposed to new housing developments or desperately needed infrastructure projects.
The problem for Liz Truss is that she hasn’t got much of a coalition of her own. The question is does her conference speech provide her with the platform to structure for growth and build that coalition? Tory members don’t seem convinced, but she might prove them wrong.
Walking out of the conference hall attendees had the opportunity to purchase Party-branded mugs emblazoned with “In Liz we Truss”. Perhaps it would be more honest to say that the party is now “Rebuilding Truss” after a few weeks of mismanagement and an exceedingly shaky start to her premiership.