Liz Truss’ day of reckoning

The past week has been not so much a car crash as a motorway pile-up for Liz Truss. The beleaguered PM is fighting for her political life less than a month after taking office. Today, at around 11am, she is set make her speech at the Conservative Party conference and attempt to save her political career.

(Getty Images)

By any measure, recent events have been unprecedented. A disastrous decision to announce unfunded tax cuts resulted in sterling plummeting to a record low against the dollar and the Bank of England forced to bail out pension funds by buying government bonds.

For many homeowners, interest rate rises and their impact on mortgages have wiped out any help they will get with their energy bills.

Conservative MPs are in open revolt amid concern at the party’s standing in the polls – languishing 33 points behind Labour.

At the weekend, the BBC quoted one former supporter of Truss as saying: “She is seen by the public as economically incompetent and cannot communicate her strategy. She is done."

And an editorial in The Times last Saturday dubbed the mini-budget a “communication failure” and stated: “Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng are guilty of staggering political incompetence.”

Comms failings have been at the heart of the Prime Minister’s problems as she has lurched from one crisis to another.

During a BBC interview on Sunday, she admitted “we should have laid the ground better” for the mini-budget. Yet in the same interview, Truss stated: “There has been too much focus on the optics of how things look.” She refused to countenance changing her mind over scrapping the 45p top rate of tax.


Tory grandee Lord Pickles warned on Sunday that the Prime Minister would be “dead in the water without a paddle” if she did a U-turn on her policy.

But by Monday morning the controversial tax cut for the highest earning people in the UK was scrapped.

The messaging from Team Truss has been to treat the tax cut as a “distraction” and relegate its importance in the context of wider economic policies.

The Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, made light of the situation during his speech on Monday, when he described the seismic effects of his mini-budget as a “little turbulence”. His speech  met with muted applause and he had to wait until the end for the obligatory standing ovation.

Earlier today Truss appeared unrepentant over the 45p top tax rate row. “I would like to see the higher rate lower,” she said. The Prime Minister stated: “I want to win over hearts and minds in the country, but also among my parliamentary colleagues.”

Damage limitation may be a more realistic aim. Boris Johnson’s former director of comms, Lee Cain, has condemned Truss for taking too much notice of the Westminster ‘bubble’ and not seeking the views of the electorate.

“I fear the damage to her reputation is already so severe it is unlikely she will ever recover sufficiently to become an election-winner for the Conservatives,” he said.

The only chance Truss has to recover some ground is if she comes up with “policy solutions that allow her to communicate that she is on the public’s side”.

High stakes

Tomorrow Truss will take to the stage and make what will be the most important speech of her political career.

With her trademark rictus grin and a delivery that is the verbal equivalent of a ransom note made with cut-out letters, it’s hard to see the Prime Minister wowing the audience.

However, she has built a political career based on sheer ambition and an ability to defy the odds.

Get it right tomorrow, and she could buy some valuable time in which to try to repair her damaged reputation.

Get it wrong, and the voices already calling for her to step down will grow even louder.

The stakes could not be higher for the fledgling PM.

Industry view

PRWeek has canvassed comms and public affairs experts for their views on what the Prime Minister should (and shouldn’t) say, and whether she can still save her political career.

Tanya Joseph, group managing director at Hill+Knowlton Strategies

Tanya Joseph

“I am not sure what, if anything, Liz Truss can say tomorrow that will rescue her premiership. She has had a catastrophic start – the death of the monarch aside, all of her own making – and she is hanging on by a thread. Her scant control of the parliamentary Conservative party has become all too apparent in the last few days.

The U-turn on tax cuts for high earners was not, as she and Kwasi Kwarteng would have us believe, because “we have listened” but because factions from across the party made it clear that they would call [Conservative party chairman] Jake Berry’s bluff and vote against the measure. While some did it because they don’t agree with the policy, others smelt the blood and will be seeking other means to unsettle and unseat her (benefits rising in line with inflation will be next on the list).

If Truss is to stay in No 10 for now she will have to convince Tory MPs, the markets and media tomorrow that she has a workable plan that she can get through and which will bring stability and growth. I am not convinced she is up to it.”

Louise Allen, chief executive of GK Strategy

Louise Allen

“Trust and public confidence are hard built and easily lost. After a bruising week, Truss’ speech must clearly articulate her commitment to listening to parliamentary colleagues, prioritising better communications and a coherent package of public policies. Failing to recognise the impact of the last week and announcing high-impact/high-risk strategies must be avoided.

Truss has burnt through significant political capital, which has much reduced the freedom of the PM. Expect a low mood, but a good show for the cameras. Truss has a lot to prove to convince colleagues that she is a political asset. While many colleagues are hoping that her strategy of ideology over pragmatism fails, removing even unpopular premiers is hard to do. High profile U-turns, poor polling and criticism from party heavyweights leaves the PM very exposed. Another week like the last would be hard to come back from.”

Daniel Gilbert, managing director, advocacy, Hanover Communications

Daniel Gilbert

“The mood is not good. Activists are worried, MPs are angry and businesses are frustrated. It contrasts with Labour in Liverpool last week, which felt unusually slick. For Liz Truss, this should be a moment for seriousness. Keep all the ambition to get Britain moving, but show this is also a listening government with a credible fiscal plan.

It’s not too late, but the clock is ticking. One minister I heard from acknowledged this Government really only has 18 months before Whitehall winds down for an election, but the risk is that Liz’s tenure is even shorter. The impact of the 45p tax debacle is that critics now see the big ideological totems as reversible when the Government is under pressure.”

Marc Woolfson, partner and head of public affairs, WA Communications

Marc Woolfson

“The PM has both a simple yet almost impossible job to do in her speech on Wednesday. After a catastrophic few weeks, economic turmoil and two U-turns in as many days, expectations are so low that simply seeming professional, reasonable and economically competent is the low bar she needs to hit to calm the markets and attempt to take the heat out of the inflationary cycle.

With her political credibility in tatters the only way is up. But it’ll be a steep climb – with some of her own Cabinet colleagues and prominent backbenchers now openly challenging her proposed policy on welfare, more U-turns are inevitable.

It’s essential for her own survival that she reaches out across her party and to the wider electorate. She needs to reassert her political vision but convincingly frame this around the benefits that an ambitious and competitive UK will unleash, with an explanation that this can be achieved without causing more economic pain and anxiety.

Critically, she needs to show that her leadership is listening and they are alive to the genuine concerns of lower and middle earners who now face massive economic challenges in the next few years. Ultimately, she needs to emote and show humility, and demonstrate that when she says she ‘gets it’, she really does.”

Jonathan Haslam, John Major’s former press secretary

Jonathan Haslam

“‘You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning.’

Only she did.

Less than a month into her premiership, Liz Truss isn’t just on the back foot, she is up to her neck and drowning.

Can she put on a life vest? Possibly – after all, the next general election is a couple of years away. As a start, the PM, a pretty poor communicator, needs to make the speech of her life. The  party faithful will applaud – well, they must; after all, they elected her. The country will watch critically and it is they, not the people in the hall, who need to be convinced.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, I want so much to free this country from its shackles and show its dynamism. Perhaps we went too fast. I plead guilty. We listened and we acted. We also know of the huge support to unleash the power of growth, to pay for the services we all want. This is what we are going to do with all the resolve we have.’ And so on.

Will it work? I doubt it. Red Wall voters, and many others, will want benefits protected. Mortgage owners won’t forget. Neither will first-time buyers. The markets aren’t convinced. The exchange rate may stabilise, but the Government’s actions have moved interest rates upwards dramatically, faster than the Bank of England wanted. The Bank may have to continue to intervene to save pension funds.

As Baroness Thatcher also said: ‘You can’t buck the markets.’”

Sonia Khan, political counsel, H/Advisors Cicero

Sonia Khan

“Liz Truss needs to use her conference speech to show the public that her plan for economic growth will benefit the poorest in society as much as the richest. She’ll need a strong cost of living package which makes people feel richer now and a commitment to strong public services – especially as we approach winter months. It’ll be a delicate balance between fulfilling the needs of the general public versus business.

But more importantly, she will also need to prove she has the tools to deliver her plan, and that includes a united Conservative party. If she’s to win over disgruntled colleagues, she needs to embrace some of Johnson’s reforms, which helped elect many Conservative MPs, and promote levelling up, resolve supply chain issues and show the country can thrive post-Brexit.

After a series of U-turns, Truss risks losing credibility if any other policies unravel now due to the pressure from her own team. She needs to prove to them that they are part of the policy delivery process and that they will be heard. If not, it doesn’t matter what she announces in this speech as she’ll only be opening the door for a Labour government.”

Jamie Lyons, head of public affairs, MHP Mischief

Jamie Lyons

“The PM has a very tricky balancing act. As the MHP Polarisation Tracker has found, her supporters are now more divided than Labour’s. If she is to have any hope of getting her reforms through the party she has to show she is consulting and listening. At the same time she has to show The Mail she has got a grip and has the authority to complete her mission.

Liz Truss should not say she is pushing ahead with her benefits plan. The idea of hitting welfare having tried to cut tax for the richest and lifting the cap on bankers’ bonuses is toxic.

It is increasingly clear how difficult it will be to get this through. If you are going to be forced into a U-turn, do it quickly.

As Priti Patel said, the PM will ‘live or die’ by her economic credibility. That has taken a huge hit. This week’s U-turn saves her for now, but the political and economic impact won’t disappear.

She can only salvage her reputation by delivering growth. But the U-turn makes that harder because she will struggle to push through the reforms she believes will deliver it.”

Emily Fermor, partner, Hanbury Strategy

Emily Fermor

“The Prime Minister’s speech will be watched anxiously by the markets, businesses and voters at home who are all fearful about what this winter might hold. For the markets, the speech will need to be reassuring and calm. They will want to see that there is a plan for how the Government will balance the books, with no surprises. Businesses, many of whom are excited about her growth agenda, will want more detail on how the Government will encourage investment and create the stability that will allow them to thrive.

And for voters, it will need to show empathy. This is an opportunity to properly relaunch her agenda and speak directly to them. She’ll need to demonstrate she understands the concerns of everyone struggling with the cost of living and those who are worried their children will never own their own home. She can do this by giving us a sense of her backstory and telling us why she believes her conservatism will bring economic success and security.”

Moray Macdonald, group head of public policy, Instinctif

Moray Macdonald

“The unenviable benefit that Liz Truss has in advance of her conference speech is that she has a low bar to meet expectations.

Conference has been buzzing, as it always is when you have large groups of like-minded people together. But dig a little below the surface and you find a party that is beginning to accept that a period in opposition is heading their way.

Penny Mordaunt addressed the Conservatives in Communications group late on Sunday night, before the top rate tax reversal, and told the raucous group: ‘What have we learnt so far at conference? We’ve learnt that our policies are great, but our comms is shit.’ She wasn’t wrong, but even she wasn’t aware of the screeching U-turn to be announced just six hours later.

The problem for Truss is that she has lost confidence among members in record time.  The party was begging for competence and delivery, and they were let down within just a few weeks.

Truss is in friendly territory in the conference hall tomorrow. But the risk is that her speech is greeted with polite applause rather than the rapturous ovation a new leader would normally receive.

The new PM needs to throw everything into this speech. She needs to steady the nerves of MPs and members by explaining the policies that will deliver her strategy of growth. She’s bet everything on it, and now we need some meat on the bones of what is undoubtedly, at face value, a good Conservative agenda.

What we don’t need is a wooden and poorly delivered speech that continues to parrot the key lines to take. This is the time to put a stake in the ground and to try to regain momentum and authority.

A poorly received speech tomorrow won’t see the end of Truss’ premiership. But it will severely reduce her authority over already rebellious MPs. Her pledge to ‘deliver deliver deliver’ would be dead in the water as she’ll be presiding over a fractious party and Zombie Government for the next two years.”

Hannah Barlow, co-founder, BB Partners

Hannah Barlow

“The Prime Minister must set out the much anticipated ‘plan of action’ detailing how Britain will fund its plan for growth, and it must be realistic. The mini-budget was recklessly radical. Declaring cuts with no plan depleted confidence and has sparked fear. The public want certainty, and they want decisions in the best interest of everyone.

Liz Truss must convince the country she is on their side, using language of ‘everyone’ and ‘all of us’. Talk of free markets, free enterprise and cuts to public services will decisively do the opposite.

Being trusted on the economy goes hand-in-glove with winning elections. Once steady ground for the Conservatives, Truss has shattered public confidence in the party’s ability to handle the public finances. If this persists, its terminal. Not just for her premiership, but for the party’s prospects in 2024.

Nothing Truss says will save her. No one speech, slogan or press conference. Instead, by the next election, the country needs to not only see economic growth but feel it – the PM’s plan for growth needs to actually work. This is a big ask in two years and an even bigger ask of a Government that has already demonstrated an incredible lack of strategic thinking.”

Stuart Thomson, head of public affairs at BDB Pitmans

Stuart Thomson

“The Prime Minister needs to use the speech to rebuild trust, credibility and authority. For someone who has only been in power for a matter of weeks this is unprecedented.

But critically, it needs to happen with audiences both inside and outside the hall. She has to use the speech to reassure members, activists, MPs, the markets and voters that she is in control of events, not being overtaken by them.

The tax U-turn wasn’t inevitable, but once it was clear that she had lost the support of colleagues then she felt boxed into a corner.

The speech needs to come out swinging, showing that there is a project to be delivered over the next two years that will secure another term.

Truss has to show that ‘we are all in this together’, as David Cameron would have said. Commitments around supporting low-income families appear essential.

She also has to show that she will work with colleagues from now on. A clear failing of the mini-budget and its policies appears to be that a range of views were not considered. That cannot happen again.

There is, though, a danger that she will go for a ‘war on woke’ as a way of attacking Labour. Division would seem to be dangerous ground for her at the moment.

The ramifications of the U-turn will continue for some time to come. Not least opponents will see that loud and vocal campaigns can deliver a change of approach.

Despite the – sometimes encouraged – comparisons with Mrs Thatcher, this lady has already shown that she is for turning.

Alternatively, she could just blame the communications for all her woes!

Her reputation is fundamentally damaged. To rebuild it would take time and she simply doesn’t have that. She may remain in office, but her power has gone.”

Nick Faith, founder and director, WPI Strategy

Nick Faith

“Her speech should aim to do the following:

  • Reassure. Her MPs, the party, the markets. By doubling down on the message that she and the Chancellor have understood and learnt the lessons of the previous few days, in terms of setting out credible fiscal plans that will aim to deliver growth.
  • Reset. Building alliances with her parliamentary colleagues. The speech needs to include a more collaborative message, reaching out to MPs who are worried about their own seats and the party’s electoral chances.
  • Deliver. She has a short period of time to deliver tangible change that people can see and feel. Her speech needs to refocus on her overarching agenda of supply-side reform. Less big policy ideas and more incremental but important change, for example on local infrastructure investment (road/rail/bus improvements and better digital connectivity).

First impressions count for a lot when introducing yourself to the country properly for the first time. This speech is important as her reset. She’s probably got one chance to reset or else she could end up in power, but unable to govern.”

Jon Steafel, managing partner, Coulson Partners

Jon Steafel

“Liz Truss should not say ‘we are listening’ or ‘we have listened’. It’s a cliche that nobody believes – and what it really means is: ‘Oops, we’ve been found out.’

She should say something like this:

‘One of the greatest qualities of the British people is aspiration. They instinctively want to improve their lives and build a better future for their children. So when they have a problem or face a tough challenge they don’t just sit there and wait for someone else to sort it out for them. No, they get up and do something about it. They take personal responsibility. I get that. I love that. So I’m sorry if we make a few mistakes as we strive to kickstart economic recovery, take responsibility for driving growth and help families keep more of their hard-earned income. We’re just trying to tackle our problems head-on and rise to the challenge of how to improve lives.’

While it isn’t impossible for her to rescue her reputation, it’ll be a struggle to do it in time for the next general election.”

Simon Richards, head of public affairs, BCW London

Simon Richards

“Truss has done her pitch to the party. She spent the whole summer doing that pitch to death. The two audiences she needs to focus on now are the country and, through the country’s reception to it, her own MPs. She needs to show she has a plan in place to recapture the public’s trust in the Conservative party as a party of economic competence. Ultimately, as always, that’s where elections are won and lost.

And through that she needs to buy herself time with her own MPs. When you speak to MPs here a number have highlighted just how significant the backlash has been on the doorstep this week – they need to know the PM is going to address that, otherwise the unrest will continue when MPs return to Westminster next week.

Can she rescue her reputation? As First Lord of the Treasury (and a Conservative leader) your ultimate currency is fiscal discipline. The self-inflicted events of the last week will live long in the public’s memory.

And one final note of caution on style for the PM – she needs to avoid the fateful delivery of a certain (now viral!) speech we saw in this conference hall a few years ago…”

Mark Glover, executive chairman, SEC Newgate UK

Mark Glover

“The Prime Minister needs to admit she made a mistake, either with the communication of her policy of abolishing the 45 per cent tax rate or by saying that this approach was wrong at this time. She needs to then reaffirm her strategy around growth and outline the benefits that will deliver for the economy and for working people. This section needs to reflect on the global challenges facing the country, but then be upbeat and persuasive that her strategy is the right way forward. 

She then needs to unify the party by highlighting the real electoral threat of Labour, and how they would benefit from a divided Government, warning that if MPs and the party don’t unite behind her then they might not win another term and be left with a socialist government.

The real challenge for her is to change the perception of her as out of touch with working people and not in control of her party, as first impressions last and, by any measure, she hasn’t made a good start.

I think if she doesn’t get the Party behind her tomorrow, then she will be totally reliant on the economy improving, voters feeling her policies are working and the polls improving. I think as she is still new then MPs will give her some time. The Conservatives cannot keep changing leaders, but those who face losing their seats will get jittery if the polls don’t start to move in her favour before Christmas.”

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