The Conservative Party conference, with a new prime minister, was a moment the party had hoped would mark a fresh start after the scandals of its predecessor, Boris Johnson. Instead, Truss had to defend the first weeks of her premiership, which were already marked by historic economic volatility, an insurgency within her party and voters turning massively away from the conservatives.
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“I’m ready to make the tough choices,” she said. She warned of “stormy days” ahead, but insisted that Britain “must do things differently” and that “when there is change, there is disruption”.
“I am determined to take a new approach and get us out of this cycle of high taxes and low growth,” she told the party faithful gathered in Birmingham, England.
Referring to the protesters later in her speech, she spoke scornfully of an “anti-growth coalition” made up of a broad swath of people in the country, including opposition politicians, “the militant trade unions, the vested interests dressed as think tanks, the talking heads. , the Brexit deniers, Extinction Rebellion and some of the people we had in the room before.”
“The fact is that they would rather protest than act. They’d rather talk on Twitter than make tough decisions,” she says. “They taxi from townhouses in north London to the BBC studio to fire anyone who questions the status quo. From broadcast to podcast, they give the same old answers. It’s always more taxes, more regulations and more meddling. Wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Truss came into office with a lot to prove. Although she had a somewhat prominent role as Foreign Secretary during the war in Ukraine, she was not as well known to the British public as Johnson — a colorful former London mayor and newspaper columnist — before he took over.
Truss was propelled not by a general election, but by a leadership contest within her party. Even then, she was not the first choice of Conservative Party lawmakers, and some of the grassroots party members who gathered around her have admitted they already missed Johnson.
Any momentum Truss had as Prime Minister was cut short after two days by the death of Queen Elizabeth II. The new prime minister accompanied the new king on a tour of the four nations of the United Kingdom, but she played a marginal role.
When attention finally returned to politics, things took a dramatic turn. Her government’s plan to grow the economy through tax cuts aimed primarily at the wealthy and to be financed with billions in loans caused investors to rush to dump British assets. The pound fell to an all-time low against the dollar. The Bank of England had to step in to put down a riot in the financial markets.
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It was only after 10 days of economic turmoil and under intense pressure from her party that Truss turned off course and announced on Monday that she would be abandoning the most controversial element of her economic plan: a proposal to scrap the top income tax rate.
The pound has since recovered. But divisions within the Conservative Party persist, as this week’s conference made clear. Home Secretary Suella Braverman on Tuesday lashed out at those within the party who “perpetrated a coup” that “unprofessionally undermined our prime minister’s authority”.
Meanwhile, Conservative Party public opinion has plummeted, falling 20 to 30 points in the past two weeks.
“This is the most dramatic poll change of my life,” said Chris Curtis, head of political polls at Opinium Research.
The Conservatives have “lost the image that they are the economically competent party — it’s that simple,” Curtis said.
A opinion poll published Tuesday night showed the opposition Labor party leads the Conservatives by 38 points in the “red wall” areas of northern England that swung behind the Conservatives in the 2019 elections.
If elections were held today, opinion polls say the Labor party would gain the largest majority.
“What this shift in the polls shows is that the British electorate is becoming increasingly volatile. It is less and less attuned to party attachment. Voters will move from one party to another,” said Will Jennings, a professor of political science at the University of Southampton.
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Politics in Britain is much less polarized than in the United States. That’s partly because of Brexit, which prompted many people to walk away from parties they’d supported for decades and instead see themselves as “leavers” or “leftovers” — labels that crossed party lines. Now that Brexit is a foregone conclusion, voters are open to other concerns.
That volatility means the pendulum could swing a number of times before the next election, which could last until January 2025, and so neither the Conservative Party nor Truss is in immediate danger.
Yet the Conservatives are known for relentlessly shedding leaders who no longer seem like vote winners. Johnson was ousted mid-term after a number of scandals, though he led his party to an overwhelming majority in 2019.
If conservatives think Truss will drag them down, she may find herself kicked out, just like Johnson.
“She’s in a vulnerable, delicate situation,” Jennings said. “If the Conservatives stay in the polls at current levels, [members of Parliament] will be very worried. You should never assume too much about the political future, but it is certainly true that she is in a difficult place. It will be a huge challenge to win back the support of its MPs and voters.”