Liz Truss says she ‘gets it’ – but how many more U-turns can she stomach? | Simon Jenkins
A disastrous conference may force the prime minister into a humiliating return to the moderate Toryism she rejectedThere are two phases to any project, launch and relaunch. After the wreckage of her party conference last week, few relaunches are more urgent t…
There are two phases to any project, launch and relaunch. After the wreckage of her party conference last week, few relaunches are more urgent than that signalled by Liz Truss’s cry that she “gets it”. Forget any charm offensive. She must dismantle – call it redefine – her rejection of Boris Johnson’s moderate Toryism, approved by the electorate in 2019, and must do it fast.
Truss has shown she can do it. A late-night Birmingham hotel meeting was enough to get her to ditch her controversial cut in the 45p top rate of tax. A similar crisis now looms over whether the upcoming increase in welfare benefits should be tied to inflation or earnings, that is, a 10% or 5% rise. Truss is tentatively committed to the latter.
A U-turn in favour of inflation is estimated to cost roughly £5bn a year and would be expensive. Yet that just happens to be roughly the annual cost of phase one of HS2, a white elephant whose total costs are now estimated northwards of £100bn. The figure of £5bn is also not far off the cost of Boris Johnson’s as yet abortive, but desperately needed, social care reform. It may be worth asking which of these programmes the British public most favours.
That would be merely the start of a Truss relaunch. Her vacuous conference slogan of “growth, growth, growth” seemed rooted in contempt for the social and external costs of such expansionism. She promised an emphatic end to previous EU regulations, most of which are directed at the environment, nature conservation, science and planning standards. She has halted “nudge” measures to aid energy saving. The so-called investment zones, unlimited in number and therefore in cost, seem to run roughshod over everything from parks and scenic beauty to zoning for height or density. Is this really to be the rebirth of Theresa May’s nasty party?
In addition, Truss reportedly wants to recast agricultural support away from the post-Brexit grants for “public goods”, a Michael Gove scheme, and revert to subsidising acreage – otherwise known as cash for rich farmers. Her motive is baffling. Half the reason for Brexit seemed to be to free Britain from this discredited EU subsidy. The environmental land management scheme (Elms), aimed at a dramatic improvement in rural conservation, has been in the works for over five years. It is now declared anti-Tory.
Truss’s government has no mandate for any of this. It was not supported by Rishi Sunak, the leadership candidate preferred by a majority of Tory MPs. Her conference speech and Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget read like they were cobbled together in a corner of a students’ union bar, with the aid of nothing but a Laffer curve and a trickle-down textbook.
Truss must repeat that she “gets it”, that modern economic growth sits in a wider social context. She needs a swift course correction in consultation with some at least of the leading figures on her backbenches, such as Sunak, Gove, Sajid Javid and Greg Clark. She must save money sensibly, champion fairness and see the cost of living as the ruling challenge of her term in office. All else is a mess.