Moving on up… or out? UK prime minister seeks to soothe Tory faithful
Britain’s embattled prime minister Liz Truss marched to the lectern for the most important speech of her political career on Wednesday – accompanied by a song about a bitter break-up.
After concluding her speech to the Conservatives’ tempestuous annual conference, she at least found her way out of the 1,500-capacity Hall 1 of Birmingham’s International Convention Centre.
The door’s “Exit” sign was taped up, to prevent mischief-making by press photographers, one of whom was dragged away by security before the speech for unspecified reasons.
When she launched her campaign in July to succeed Boris Johnson as Tory leader, Truss briefly got lost when she tried to leave the room.
This time in Birmingham, her arrival song was “Moving On Up” by M People, presumably to chime with the conference slogan of “Getting Britain Moving”.
But its lyrics – in fact a stinging goodbye to a cheating lover – could have rung true with those already calling for Truss to go.
“You’ve done me wrong, your time is up/You took a sip from the devil’s cup.
“You broke my heart, there’s no way back/Move right out of here, baby, go on pack your bags.”
The 40-minute speech was briefly interrupted by Greenpeace protesters holding up a sign saying “Who voted for this?”
The sign was a clear reminder that Truss became prime minister with the votes of just 80,000 Tory activists, not the country at large.
Opinion polls have increasingly signalled the country’s deep unhappiness at her shock-and-awe economic policies.
For many of her Tory critics, Truss is already drinking in the last-chance saloon just a month into her premiership.
Her policy package convulsed financial markets and forced an emergency intervention by the Bank of England.
One of the leaders of the awkward squad is former minister Grant Shapps, whom Truss unceremoniously sacked when she appointed her new cabinet.
Shapps said the speech, and the next 10 days, were crucial if Truss wants to avoid a no-confidence vote by Tory MPs –- mere months since they dumped Johnson.
‘What a great week!’
As it was, the speech broke no new policy ground, but recapped Truss’s life story and her low-tax, anti-European Union, patriotic mantra.
It avoided the gaffes that made a 2014 conference speech by Truss go viral.
Then environment minister, she delivered a stilting and surreal turn in praise of British pork and cheese.
But while no disgrace, her leader’s speech did showcase some of the traits that make Truss such a wooden orator.
She smiled oddly at serious moments, then looked oddly determined in lighter sections.
Eyes staring, leaning forward, she declared her three priorities were “growth, growth, growth”.
Tentative applause built from the hall when she praised Kwasi Kwarteng as her “dynamic” chancellor of the exchequer.
And she continued to speak before finally realising that it was a moment to pause and let the party give its approval of the embattled minister after a disastrous few days.
On Tuesday, Truss failed three times to declare she trusted Kwarteng – one of a series of car-crash moments that this week made the Tories look more like the perpetually faction-ridden Labour party than the Western world’s most successful political force.
Many delegates admitted as much, and many left Birmingham on Tuesday to beat a national rail strike in Britain.
A few empty seats dotted the back of the convention hall.
Tory chairman Jake Berry was the first warm-up act for Truss, and gamely tried to inject confidence despite polls showing Labour in a commanding lead and Truss seen herself as “incompetent” and “useless”.
“Conference, what a great week it’s been!” Berry said, prompting howls of laughter from the press rows and a few groans from the party faithful.
“That wasn’t meant to be the funny bit!” he said ruefully.