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Good morning. Liz Truss used her conference speech to set out who her enemies were: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, talking heads, podcasters, people who live in big houses in north London, Extinction Rebellion, the shock troops of the UK’s anti-growth coalition.
It is not yet clear where Fitch, which has downgraded the UK’s outlook from ‘stable’ to ‘negative’ sit in the axis of evil. Somewhere above those of us with small flats in north London, I hope.
I would do anything for growth, but I won’t do that
One thing that Liz Truss is undoubtedly right about: there is a powerful anti-growth coalition in the United Kingdom.
And it’s undoubtedly true to say that some of those anti-growth forces can be found on the opposition benches. Indeed, we saw some of that thanks to the anti-fracking protesters who disrupted the prime minister’s speech. But one problem with Truss’s conference speech is that the most powerful single part of the UK’s anti-growth coalition is inside the Conservative party.
When Suella Braverman says her “ultimate aspiration” is to get immigration to the UK down to the tens of thousands, she is part of the anti-growth coalition. When Brendan Clarke-Smith, a junior minister, celebrates preventing the establishment of a solar farm in his constituency, he is part of the anti-growth coalition. When Grant Shapps, then the secretary of state, blocks plans to redevelop the area around Cockfosters Underground — he is part of the anti-growth coalition.
Now, again, it is true to say that the anti-growth coalition runs well beyond the bounds of the Conservative party. Matthew Pennycook, Labour’s shadow housing minister, only last year opposed new housing on brownfield land in his constituency. But it is the Conservative party which has been the largest party in local government since 2004 and has been in office since 2010. Ultimately it is the Conservative party’s anti-growth tendency that matters most because it is the one that holds and wields real power at Westminster. It is that part of the anti-growth coalition that Truss needs to defeat if she wants to succeed.
One reason why successful leaders have to name their opponents precisely is if you can’t do that, you can’t defeat them. When Tony Blair said he bore “scars on his back” from reforming public services, he didn’t pretend that his real problem was William Hague. Nor did Margaret Thatcher shy away from pointing out that some of her biggest opponents were within the Tory party.
Of course, the big difference between Truss and either of those politicians is that both of them were much stronger than Truss is at the moment. But in politics, weakness can tend to be self-reinforcing: Truss is too weak to actually name her most dangerous opponents because she is too weak to have any chance at all of defeating them. Because she is too weak to defeat them, she has no real hope of achieving her aims.
One more cup of Coffey before I go
The other missing thing from Liz Truss’s speech was any sense of what, exactly, she might cut in order to achieve her aim of “sound money”. If anything, quite the reverse: she had a lengthy passage on how her friend and close political ally, the health secretary Thérèse Coffey, was going to tackle the NHS backlog — not something it is obvious can be reconciled with the real-terms spending cuts that inflation is inflicting on the public services.
She got a particularly big cheer for her comments about the war in Ukraine and the UK’s defence spending target — another budget that is visibly going to grow rather than shrink.
This is surely Truss’s biggest problem, in political and policy terms. There is no viable course on tax and spend which won’t be vetoed by one faction in her party or another, and she is too weak to even name, let alone defeat, her internal opponents.
Now try this
Georgina is on holiday. Before heading off for a well-deserved break, she wrote a fascinating piece for the FT’s Opinion section about visiting the Hampshire RAF base where her father lived as a refugee 40 years ago:
Living in buildings unmarked on any official map, Sopley’s 2,885 residents had a liminal existence — caught between war and peace, international assistance and domestic indifference.
Top stories today
‘It’s like a family wedding’ | Business leaders criticised ruling Conservatives for their level of engagement with business at the party conference, as they urged the party to focus on reviving the economy and stop infighting. “It’s like a family wedding where there’s been a tremendous row and they can no longer be polite to the guests,” one senior lobbyist said.
Caledonian Sleeper | Serco’s contract to run the Caledonian Sleeper train will be axed starting next summer. The news raises the prospect of nationalisation but Holyrood has said no decision has been made on that front.
Tax threshold freezes outweigh headline cuts | People will lose more than they gain as a result of freezes to tax and benefit thresholds, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said. One senior research economist said freezes would drag “millions more” into the tax system.
Pension scheme warned of risks | The UK’s largest private sector pension scheme, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, exposed more of its members’ assets into leveraged hedging, despite opposition from sponsoring employers.
Tories reflect on calamitous conference | Conservative MPs have reflected on a conference marked by cabinet infighting and a breakdown of party discipline. “I just went back to my hotel room and cried,” one Truss ally said.