Her performance was visibly energised by the interruption
The most dynamic performance during Liz Truss’s speech to Tory conference came not from the podium, but the audience. “Out! Out! Out!” they bayed. To be clear, this wasn’t directed at the Tory leader, but to a small group of protesters who interrupted her.
I’m not sure who they were (Rishi Sunak has a solid alibi) but Truss owes them big time. Up until that moment she was floundering. Though she walked-on to the motivational strains of ‘Moving on Up’ by M People, Truss’s rhetoric was M-for-mediocre. The energy in the hall ebbed away as she paused for clap lines that didn’t deliver.
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Then, as if on cue, the protestors piped-up, prompting the delegates to rally to their leader’s defence. Once order was restored, a visibly re-energised Truss warmed to her theme — which, of course, was growth.
In particular, she turned her ire against what she called the “anti-growth coalition”, which she said was made-up of Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, militant unions, Michael Gove and Extinction Rebellion. Admittedly, I may have imagined the reference to Gove, but she was thinking it so loud, I can hardly be blamed.
In any case, this was the heart of the whole speech: an us-against-the-world oration intended to solidify her support within the Party.
From a speech-writing viewpoint, this tactic most obviously evokes Tony Blair’s 1999 conference speech in which he inveighed against “the forces of conservatism” (i.e. a list of his political foes). But I suspect a second source of inspiration: a 1984 speech to the 1922 Committee in which Margaret Thatcher juxtaposed the “enemy without” (i.e. General Galtieri’s invasion of the Falklands) and the “enemy within” (i.e. the militant Left). It just so happens that Truss’s attack on the “anti-growth coalition” came straight after her condemnation of Vladimir Putin.
Whether consciously done or not, it was, on this occasion, the closest she got to dressing-up in Thatcher’s clothes. Given the events of the week, she could hardly invoke her heroine directly: “I’ll turn if you want me to. This lady is for turning.”
It is to Truss’s credit that she referred to the u-turn on the top rate of income tax. What’s more she didn’t exactly rule out further u-turns. The fact that there was no mention of welfare policy in the speech was an especially interesting omission.
Indeed, one suspects that, rather like Boris Johnson and levelling-up, Truss’s growth objective is now more of a political totem than a far-reaching programme of economic reform. Any pro-growth measures she can get past the money markets will serve mainly as a rallying point — “are you with me or against me?”
As a tactic for surviving as leader it will probably work, for a while. But as she came off stage today, to more than polite applause, the fact is that her enemies are still waiting in the wings.