Joe Biden warned her not to mess with the Northern Ireland Protocol. The folks at the New York Times say she reminds them of that famous racist, Enoch Powell. The wife of a departing minister called her an imbecile, and Matthew Parris, the former Conservative MP, spoke for many serving ones when he called her “a planet-sized mass of overconfidence and ambition teetering upon a pinhead of a political brain”.
Welcome, Liz Truss, to Number 10.
It’s true the new prime minister’s first two speeches since being named Conservative leader have been empty of substance and charisma. The first seemed to have been written by an algorithm still tuned to the 0.03 per cent of voters who backed her rather than a national audience. The second was as wooden as the Downing Street lectern. The closest thing in it to a rhetorical flourish was three words of warmed-over Churchill: “Action this day.”
But wait. “She’s a politician who’s still finding herself,” Archie Norman, the former Conservative Party Chief Executive, told Tortoise last night. It follows that voters are still finding her too. She won’t be defined by the past three months, but the next three. Her appointments and announcements over the next three days are critical, and she wasn’t kidding about action.
The reshuffle. Truss moved directly from lectern to bloodbath. Most remaining vestiges of Teams Johnson and Sunak were removed from power by dusk.
- Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Nadine Dorries – ersatz big beasts in the absence of real ones in the brief age of Boris – are gone.
- Prominent holdovers – Ben Wallace at defence and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new business secretary – are conspicuous by their scarcity.
- White men are absent for the first time from the four top jobs. Kwasi Kwarteng (chancellor), James Cleverly (foreign secretary) and Suella Braverman (home secretary) join Truss in the inner sanctum. For what it’s worth, the Conservatives have now delivered four non-white chancellors in a row and three women prime ministers.
The energy plan. Truss has promised one within a week. Details would have been welcome before the leadership announcement so she could have been judged on them, but they’re now leaking fast.
- The Times puts the total cost at £150 billion or more, based on freezing bills at their current average of £1,970 and keeping a £400-per-household support payment promised by the last government.
- That means colossal borrowing at rising costs. The FT says Truss is on a collision course with a Bank of England that will be forced to raise rates to tame inflation, even though that is the whole point of the energy package too. Base rates could nearly double to 3 per cent by Christmas.
The department of unsolicited advice. Truss will get plenty of it, but there were two choice nuggets last night:
- Take on the Treasury. Mandarins will counsel caution, but Vince Cable, former business secretary and LibDem leader, welcomed signs that Truss intends to defy them: “There’s going to be heavy borrowing and if that means a debt-to-GDP ratio of over 100 per cent, so be it… Rates are still low in historic terms. I think it’s time to take on the Treasury orthodoxy.”
- Tell the truth. “The right thing to do is level with the public on the NHS and the economy,” Norman told last night’s ThinkIn. “The government can’t solve oil and gas prices. It can only put a balm on the wounds. The genesis of any turnaround is the unvarnished truth.”
Part of the truth is that the UK is effectively at war with Russia. Truss seems to realise this. She has left her defence secretary in place, is planning to borrow as if for war and has credited Johnson twice in two days for “standing up to Putin”. Her first overseas call last night was to Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, who seemed delighted.
Another part is that borrowing is deferred taxation: Truss will either have to steer the country into insolvency or U-turn on her no-new-taxes pledge.
She has a few months at most to persuade sceptical voters, 99.985 per cent of whom did not vote for her this summer, that she’s the right captain for this winter’s inevitable storms. One of her own ministers said last night she wouldn’t last two years.
Photographs Getty, Simon Dawson/Number 10