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Paul Vallely: Liz Truss: ideologue or pragmatist?

09 September 2022

The new PM now has to woo a different electorate, observes Paul Vallely

Alamy

Liz Truss speaks in the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions, on Wednesday

Liz Truss speaks in the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions, on Wednesday

IS OUR new Prime Minister an ideologue or a pragmatist? Liz Truss, to secure her election as the Leader of the Conservative Party, had to set out to appeal to a handful of Tory activists. Having arrived in Downing Street, she now has to win the confidence of a very different set of voters.

To her party, she presented herself as a classic free-marketeer set on cutting taxes and shrinking the size of the State. It was enough to distinguish her from Rishi Sunak, who had had to raise taxes to cope with the massive handouts required during the pandemic.

In her victory speech, the new PM insisted: “I campaigned as a Conservative and I will govern as a Conservative.” For weeks, she had consistently rejected “handouts” as the best way to help people struggling with astronomical gas and electricity bills and with inflation, which, Goldman Sachs says, may yet reach 22 per cent. Suddenly, even before she met the Queen at Balmoral, commentators smelled a U-turn in the air with talk of the deployment of £100 billion of taxpayers’ money in another huge act of state intervention.

It is always enlightening when ideology bumps up against reality. Millions of citizens are in dire straits because of quadrupled energy bills. Many, faced with a choice between eating and heating, have pledged to refuse to pay. Thousands of small businesses face bankruptcy. Civil unrest could loom.

Ms Truss knows that she needs to act swiftly. The Tories are ten per cent behind Labour in the polls, and 67 per cent of people say that they are not confident in her cost-of-living policies.

Throughout her career, Ms Truss has shown a canny ability to change with the times. She has shifted from shrill Lib Dem student republican to anti-woke Tory culture warrior. Once a campaigning Remainer, she became a passionate Brexiteer. Some suggest that she will now deploy this flexibility in Downing Street.

Yet, party management issues press her in the opposing direction. She was elected Tory leader by the narrowest margin since members got the vote. Fewer than a third of Tory MPs backed her in the parliamentary round of the contest. To win the leadership contest, she courted the Tory hard Right.

The programme that she set out in her first speech as PM prioritised economic growth, the energy crisis, and the NHS. She should have little difficulty in obtaining support from across her party to get the required legislation through on that. But there are more divisive issues.

The deadline is looming, for instance, for the UK to respond to the EU’s legal action over the Government’s threat to scrap the Northern Ireland protocol. Will she maintain her former hardline stance and risk a trade war with the EU, exacerbating the cost-of-living crisis? Or will she take a softer line and risk being brought down by the Right, as two previous Tory PMs have been?

The pound is at its weakest in decades. Inflation is embedded. Investors are selling off gilts, fearing that tax cuts, coupled with big borrowing. will blow a hole in the public finances. Can Liz Truss square the circle between pragmatism and ideology? We may well be in for a bumpy ride.

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