Liz Truss conjured enemy alliance to distract from the Tory rebels within

Liz Truss conjured enemy alliance to distract from the Tory rebels within

“Moving On Up” was a bullish choice of entrance music.

The 90s pop classic blaring from the speakers as Liz Truss stepped out on to the conference stage for her first speech as leader.

But while the M People track echoed her conference slogan “Getting Britain Moving”, the rest of the song’s lyrics may have raised some eyebrows.

“You’re movin’ on out”, “there’s no way back”, the song goes, “move right out of here, baby, go on pack your bags” – surprisingly apt for a fractious conference where the dominant conversation has been about whether the Truss premiership is over before it has even really begun.

Politics Hub: Latest reaction and analysis after Liz Truss’s conference speech

This speech then a chance to speak to both her party members and to voters, who have taken a look at the Conservatives under Liz Truss and don’t appear to much like what they see.

With Labour now commanding huge leads in the polls – one suggesting the opposition now has a 33-point lead – this prime minister has to get voters to give her a hearing if she has any hope of staving off the mutinous mood brewing in her party.

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Not surprising then that her message to voters was not a million miles from what Sir Keir Starmer said in Liverpool last week – that she understands what they’re going through, that she’s been through struggles herself and that she’s on their side.

“I have fought to get where I am today”, she said. “I have fought to get jobs, to get pay rises and to get on the housing ladder. I have juggled my career with raising two wonderful daughters.

“I know how it feels to have your potential dismissed by those who think they know better.”

So a message that she is not part of a privileged elite but on the side of working people. Her sole focus, she said, was “growth, growth, growth” to “build our country for a new era”. Lower taxation, getting a grip on public finances and bringing forward economic reforms to “grow the pie so everyone gets a bigger slice”.

But there are many things that could blunt that message in the coming months: decisions to give big tax cuts to big business; the knock-on effects of her economic plan on inflation and interest rate rises; the pressure of public sector spending and rows over public sector pay, to name a few. And while the prime minister U-turned on her plan to abolish the 45p rate of tax for the top 1% of earners, the surrounding controversy may have already stained her reputation with working voters.

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Prime Minister Liz Truss has promised ‘an iron grip on the nation’s finances’

For her parliamentary party, there was a mixed message. For while she acknowledged there had been difficulties and she had “listened”, she also signalled she was in “complete lockstep” with her chancellor and was pressing ahead with her plan. “Whenever there is change, there is disruption,” she said.

“Not everyone will be in favour, but everyone will benefit from the result – a growing economy and a better future. That is what we have a clear plan to deliver.” The showdown then between Ms Truss and the rebel alliance led by Michael Gove looks guaranteed to grind on.

It was in her message for party members, however, that Ms Truss really hit her stride. Rather than attacking MP rebels, as her home secretary did on Tuesday, or previous governments, as her chancellor did on Monday, Ms Truss defined the enemy as the opposition, which she bundled into something akin to an ‘axis of evil’ coalition to the delight of the hall.

“I will not allow the anti-growth coalition to hold us back. Labour, Lib Dems and the SNP. The militant unions and the vested interests dressed up as think-tanks. The talking heads, the Brexit deniers and Extinction Rebellion. They prefer protesting to doing. They prefer talking on Twitter to taking tough decisions. They taxi from North London townhouses to the BBC studio to dismiss anyone challenging the status quo.”

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This was perhaps her best received moment of the speech as she gave party activists an external enemy to distract from the infighting of her own party.

But for all the external – perhaps imagined – enemies, it is the enemy within that will continue to cause the prime minister difficulties, and the lack of detail or new announcements in her speech was unusual.

Leaders typically launch a new eye-catching policy in conference set pieces. That Ms Truss didn’t announce anything new reflects perhaps that she knows she is constrained by the markets and by her party. For all her promises of growth, growth, growth, she is a PM who wants to try to reduce spending as she looks for government savings in the face of her ballooning debt pile.

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This is also a prime minister who is facing a very organised band of rebels in parliament who are determined to pick off parts of her plan they don’t much like. They have already forced a U-turn on the 45p rate cut and are now looking to bounce a reluctant-looking prime minister into lifting benefit payments by inflation rather than earnings in order that the four million claimants don’t face a real terms cut in their incomes.

When Ms Truss kicked off her premiership, an ally told me it would be a “shock and awe” start. On that, she didn’t disappoint. But what her speech showed on Wednesday is how constrained this leader has already become.

Today’s speech will not answer the question posed by her entrance music – it won’t determine whether she moves on up from this low point, or is moved out by her party. It is fair to say she did not leave the hall weaker than she went in, which her team will see as a victory of sorts.

But there is no doubt she ends her first party conference as leader diminished by a torrid four days of division and infighting. It was not the start she hoped for. How it all ends is still so unclear.