Liz Truss has attempted to unite her party around a common enemy of the “anti-growth coalition” of the unions, remainers and green campaigners after a turbulent Tory conference that left her party downbeat and divided, and her leadership in peril.
After a fractious four-day gathering in Birmingham, the prime minister pledged to get the country “through the tempest” of the economic crisis this winter by pressing on with her economic plan for growth despite the “disruption” it risks unleashing.
Amid dire polling, Conservative MPs have put her on notice, with warnings that if she radically diverges from the party’s electoral mandate in the coming months she risks being ousted in spring’s local elections, the first electoral test of her premiership.
“These are stormy days,” Truss admitted as she sought to revive her faltering premiership. “In these tough times we need to step up. I am determined to get Britain moving, to get us through the tempest and put us on a stronger footing as a nation.”
However, the party returns to Westminster still reeling from the fallout of the mini-budget that undermined its reputation for economic competence, while a major U-turn over the 45p top rate of income tax, prompted by a rebellion, has been catastrophic for her authority.
After Truss’s speech, Downing Street suggested that Tory whips would take steps to ensure ministers were more disciplined after a week of splits in which the prime minister’s allies accused some MPs of trying to launch a coup.
“There’s always going to be differences of opinion between people, people are entitled to their personal opinions,” her press secretary said. “But they should be raised in a more constructive manner. Collective responsibility is the same as it always has been.”
The prime minister sought to reassure financial markets by recommitting to “fiscal responsibility” and insisting she and Kwasi Kwarteng, the chancellor, were in “lockstep” over their plans, while blaming the economic turbulence on global factors.
Truss vowed to press on with plans that include cutting taxes, tearing up planning regulation and public spending reductions, even though they will inevitably bring further clashes with Tory MPs.
“As the last few weeks have shown, it will be difficult. Whenever there is change, there is disruption. And not everyone will be in favour of change. But everyone will benefit from the result,” she said. “I am ready to make hard choices. You can trust me to do what it takes. The status quo is not an option.”
There was a muted reaction from the financial markets, with the pound falling 1.32% against the dollar. Government borrowing costs also fell but were slightly higher over the day.
She argued the Tories faced an “anti-growth coalition” of Labour, the SNP, Liberal Democrats, trade unions, and anti-Brexit and environmental campaigners, as well as “vested interests dressed up as thinktanks” – even though many of her own backbenchers are standing in the way of her plans.
“The fact is they prefer protesting to doing. They prefer talking on Twitter to taking tough decisions. They taxi from north London townhouses to the BBC studio to dismiss anyone challenging the status quo. From broadcast to podcast, they peddle the same old answers,” she said.
In contrast, Truss put herself on the side of “normal working people” such as white van drivers, hairdressers and, bizarrely, accountants – her own professional background – who the coalition “just doesn’t get”. She added: “I know how it feels to have your potential dismissed by those who think they know better.”
Earlier, her speech was disrupted by protesters waving a Greenpeace banner that said: “Who voted for this?” As they were escorted from the hall to boos, Truss joked: “Later on in my speech I’m going to talk about the anti-growth coalition. I think they arrived in the hall a bit too early.”
She has repeatedly refused to say whether she would raise benefits in line with inflation, triggering a cabinet split as Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the Commons, and Robert Buckland, the Welsh secretary, suggested she should – and signalling another battle ahead. In her speech she said she would exert an “iron grip” over public spending, hinting at possible austerity to come. “I believe in sound money and a lean state,” she said.
The prime minister said she was sticking to Boris Johnson’s plans to “level up” regions of the UK. “I know what it’s like to live somewhere which is not feeling the benefits of economic growth,” she said. “I’ve seen the boarded-up shops and people with no hope turning to drugs.”
Truss allies said they felt she had “done what she needed to do” to buy herself some time with disgruntled Tory MPs. Her team has started meeting backbenchers to explain her plan and take soundings on their priorities.
But many MPs left conference disheartened. One said: “Liz is playing a bunch of tunes that nobody is listening to. Never has a voter said that what they want is growth. They want the consequences of it – but she keeps talking about it in a way that nobody understands.”
Several MPs warned the local elections represented a moment of danger for the prime minister. “If [the results] are bad the party will panic and try to get rid of her,” said one MP.
The shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, said: “Liz Truss has been a government minister for the last 10 years. She has been at the heart of building a Conservative economy that has led to the flat wages and low growth she highlighted today. The most important thing the prime minister can do right now to stabilise the economy is to immediately reverse her government’s kamikaze budget when parliament returns next week.”
The liberal conservative think tank Bright Blue accused the government of “amateurism and amorality”, with its chief executive, Ryan Shorthouse, saying Truss’s economic policies “do very little” for voters who backed the Tories in 2019 and “have for a long time felt forgotten”.