Empty chairs across the hall for Liz Truss’ first party speech, the Conservative leader had plenty to say about the chaotic past four days. The gloom that has surrounded the Birmingham International Conference Center since Sunday suggests that the party, in various guises in power since 2010, has given up the political will to live.
Most prime ministers expected to play to a standing-room-only crowd at what would normally be the biggest high-ticket event in their party’s annual jamboree. Truss’s allies may blame a strike by train drivers for giving the conference an excuse to walk out a day early. But, in truth, the atmosphere here started off dull on Sunday and by Wednesday it looked like a wake. It’s hard to imagine that just a month ago Truss’s party was endorsing his rival Rishi Suna as Boris Johnson as leader.
It seems like another age. Partly because Britain’s revered monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, died two days after Truss took over. But more importantly, Truss’s first major policy move: a major tax cut plan, largely financed by borrowing, caused confusion and panic in Britain’s financial markets across the party list. The Parliamentary Party – which has always been cooler to him than the wider membership – arrived in Birmingham on Sunday for a late-night spin, which did little to reassure them that the helm was in steady hands.
By Wednesday, Truss’s task was to give the speech of a lifetime. He began on an unusually personal note for himself, talking about growing up in Leeds in the north of England, where he saw “too many children being let go” because civil servants were so interested in political correctness.
Facing the chaos of recent days, Truss defended his fast-track economic policies that led to the pound’s plunge, saying he wanted to continue with his agenda to grow the economy from his first day in Downing Street.
Truss put his spin on tax cuts, but doubled down on the rest of his libertarian agenda. He told delegates that his government will “take the nation’s finances into an iron age” and believes in “sound money and a lean state”.
The strongest cheers came during an episode about Ukraine, where President Volodymyr Zelensky’s declaration that he would prevail against Russia was the only thing all viewers could agree on.
But many other lines of applause fell flat. And his boast that he was the product of a state-funded comprehensive school as the British Prime Minister was not true; that belongs to the Labor Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who has spoken. in recent days about what he believes to be the economic illiteracy of his fiscal policies.
He says the most striking moment was the interruption of the Greenpeace protesters, who were quickly ejected.
For doubters of the prime minister, who believe he is struggling with policies that will lead to electoral disaster, there was little to reassure them. He ended on his main message – “we have no alternative” – but the problem is that critics of the party do not agree.
On the eve of Truss’s speech, only those most loyal to him wanted to argue that his prime ministership was anything but doomed. A cabinet minister told CNN: “It’s the end of an era. We’ve been in power for 12 years and we have no fight left.”
Consultants, supporters and lobbyists who work for companies traditionally aligned with conservative values said privately that the fight was over. Usually, at such events, Tuesday night is a celebration of the ruling party, a place to invent new ways to punish the official opposition and tap into the arrogance of power.
Instead, drinks receptions were half-full or cancelled. A lobbyist who historically represents a staunch supporter of the Conservative Party told CNN that his boss had asked him to pay back the event because the ministers who attended were so distracted that it was not worth the thousands of pounds they were paying. They played for the audience with a senior member of the government.
It is worth reflecting on what this period of government has been like for the conservative party. Dismissed by Tony Blair’s New Labor in 1997, it has undergone so many transformations that it is hard to imagine what any revived version of the party might look like.
After Blair’s three disastrous election defeats, the Conservatives elected a new leader in 2010. David Cameron was a liberal conservative who wanted his party to be a destination for aspiring centrists.
He won the general election that year against Brown, but without an absolute majority and was forced to govern in coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrat party. In one, both parties pushed for policies previously unimaginable to conservatives, like legalizing same-sex marriage.
As the official opposition Labor Party failed to stand up to Cameron’s conservatives, a new threat emerged on the right: the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party, led by the most famous Brexiteer Nigel Farage.
Cameron faced the rise of Eurosceptics by putting Eurosceptic policies in his manifesto for the 2015 election: Namely, promising a vote to leave the European Union.
When Cameron won a majority in 2015 and was forced to keep his pledge to the referendum, he favored remaining in the EU. It was a gamble that cost him his career. Less than a year after winning its first Conservative majority since 1992, the crushing defeat in the Brexit referendum forced it to quit.
Since then, the conservative party has dismantled every imaginable ideology and burned so many different groups that it is hard to see what new ideas it can offer. The talent pool has been narrowed, experienced party figures have been jettisoned, and now Truss’ team is drawn from inexperienced ingenuity and idiosyncratic think-tanks.
Truss believed that the way to kick-start growth and put the Conservatives on the front foot was a return to free-market conservatism.
The sad truth is, for Truss, the political will has simply not been there for his ideas. The free market did not respond to the tax cuts in the way it had intended and instead drove the pound to its lowest level in decades. The return to parity was only possible because the Bank of England threw £65 trillion ($75 trillion) into the problem. High-minded economic ideas need public approval, and Truss moved before he could secure it.
The resulting chaos has fueled the feeling that theirs is a government doomed to fail.
This does not mean that failure is inevitable. There is still a long way to go before the next general election, which will probably be held sometime in 2024. It is possible that the economy will pick up in the coming months and people will forget about the disastrous start of their government. .
But with open rebellion in his own party and the real possibility of a leadership challenge, it is hard to see how Truss and his government can credibly claim that the UK is a stable investment destination.
Of course, much can change and the opposition Labor Party is not measuring the Downing Street curtains just yet.
But the last few days here in Birmingham have felt like the beginning of the end.
Deputies and ministers have avoided journalists and representatives. CNN spoke to those trying to defend Truss at private receptions where loyalists would lose their train of thought before giving up or resorting to cries of frustration. Officials working for the party were often seen huddling in small groups who looked shaken and angry.
What happens next is not immediately clear. If Truss’s poll ratings continue to sink, MPs may decide that removing him is the only serious, albeit painful, option. Truss may decide to call a snap election and force his party’s unity. Realistically, the outcome will likely be that they will struggle and hope for the best.
Whatever path Truss takes, one thing’s for sure: he won’t have long to clean up this mess of his own making.