Storm clouds gather

Liz Truss denounced ‘handouts’ and ‘redistribution’ on the campaign trail - now she has announced a £100 billion energy price cap. Eddie Ford gives his day-one assessment of Britain’s new prime minister

In the end, Liz Truss won by a narrower margin than expected. She obtained 57% of the Tory member vote - 81,326 votes - while former chancellor Rishi Sunak picked up 60,399 on an 82.6% turnout in a far from humiliating defeat.

The general consensus is that after a rocky start Truss’s campaign played it well to the constituency of about 160,000 Tory members - mainly male, white, well-off and living in the south of England. Hence the talk about tax cuts and Margaret Thatcher, declaring China an “enemy” and all the rest. It is important for communists to get into the heads of the Tory rank and file the best we can. They loved Boris Johnson, just like Thatcher before him. His charismatic personality, stomping election victory, cheerful boosterism, bad jokes, classical allusions, buffoonery - was just what they wanted.

Michael Heseltine put the knife into Thatcher, hence did not win the election to replace her. In the same way, Sunak - the preferred choice of Tory MPs by a large margin - was seen as having treacherously brought down their hero and was therefore deeply unpopular to begin with, meaning he did extraordinarily well to get 42.6%.

As many people had suspected, Truss immediately began to fill her cabinet with loyalists and allies - a cabinet of chums. Thus the journalistic commentary about a lurch to the right, and there can be no doubt about that. Of course, this was exactly what Tory grandees had advised her not to do, as they wanted to make a show of a ‘unity cabinet’ to bring about party rapprochement after the bruising rats-in-a-sack leadership contest.

Instead, she sacked all the major cabinet-level supporters of her leadership rival, while Sunak himself ruled out taking a post in her administration. Truss’s close ally, Kwasi Kwarteng, is now chancellor, Suella Braverman replaces Priti Patel as home secretary and James Cleverly was promoted to foreign secretary. Another key political ally, Thérèse Coffey, was made health secretary and also takes over from deputy prime minister Dominic Raab - who had described Truss’s tax plans as an “electoral suicide note”. Ben Wallace stays on as defence secretary. Raising alarm though, the new business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg has been handed direct responsibility for energy and climate change, as no-one else seemed to want the role. Showing his suitability for the position, he has a record of lambasting “climate alarmism” and describing the green movement as “doomsayers”.

Now, it is fairly safe to say that Liz Truss has already eaten some of her words, when it comes to things she said on the campaign trail - like decrying “handouts” as a solution to the cost of living crisis. That does not work and was never going to, which everyone knew. Then there was her comment to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg that it is “wrong” to “look at everything through the lens of redistribution”, since “what I’m about is growing the economy”, which “benefits everybody” - a crude variant of trickle-down theory. She has to go in for some tax cuts, of course, otherwise it would be too embarrassing. But what sort and how much is an entirely different question. Will she reverse April’s national insurance increase, even though that would disproportionately benefit top earners by about £1,800 a year and the lowest earners by only around £7? (Note that Truss said she would implement the national insurance reversal “from day one”.)

The big news is, of course, her plan for a reported £90-£100 billion worth of subsidies to tackle the potentially catastrophic energy crisis that could have plunged millions into destitution and seen tens of thousands of businesses going bust - it still could (after all, we wait to read the details).

Essentially, energy bills will be frozen at the current £1,971 rate, which was due to go up by a disastrous 80% on October 1 to £3,549 - then possibly up again in January to £5,000, with some analysts predicting that by April bills could have been hitting £7,000. This was clearly an impossible and unsustainable situation, and something had to be done - and it has. The scheme, under which the UK government subsidises the wholesale cost of gas, allowing suppliers to cap the price of energy to households and businesses, is expected to be paid for through extra borrowing, after Kwasi Kwarteng made the case in the Financial Times for some “fiscal loosening” - quite an understatement.

At the moment, it appears that the new ‘tax-cutting’ government will pay for the project out of general taxation - meaning that the figures do not add up (they were wobbly to begin with). Truss is saying she will borrow £100 billion, while at the same time cutting taxes and boosting spending on defence - a square that is very hard to circle. Plus there is the very real possibility that the whole thing could end up costing a lot more than originally estimated, given the rising price of wholesale gas, rising inflation and rising interest rates.

The governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, is already warning that the country “likely” faces a recession. So it looks like it will be a bumpy ride for Liz Truss.


In a lengthy interview for The Daily Telegraph, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting made the curious claim that the Tories are “planning to lose the next general election” (September 2). As evidence, he points to the decision by the current government to cap the number of medical students, which apparently means that the Conservatives have “concluded there’s no point recruiting medicine trainees because they’re not going to come into work until there’s a Labour government in place”.

OK, maybe this is a cunning political ploy by Streeting, but it is still desperate stuff. Only in the most bizarre circumstances do politicians want to lose elections, miss out on the chance of a ministerial portfolio or getting into the House of Lords - especially Tories, as they fetishise power. Another stupid comment often heard in the bourgeois media is ‘Who would want to be prime minister at a time like this, with the cost of living crisis, Ukraine, etc?’ That fails to understand what bourgeois politics is all about, or indeed any sort of politics. You could imagine these people looking at Lenin’s position in October and asking why the Bolsheviks would want to take over when people are going hungry, industries are grinding to a halt, the war is going badly … wait until nice times before you take power.

No, the Tories do not want to lose, but many of them fear that they could - quite understandably, from their perspective. Judging by recent events, it does seem that, unless things start going right, the Tories are in deep trouble. Or could it be that war comes to the rescue of Liz Truss, like it did with Margaret Thatcher with the Falkland Islands? Prior to 1982, she was deeply unpopular, as cardboard cities and mass unemployment emerged and a resounding election defeat seemed certain. But then you had the war with Argentina, which transformed her image for a large enough swathe of the electorate.

Unsurprisingly then, the latest opinion polls show Labour well ahead. On the day that Liz Truss was elected as Tory leader, the Labour lead over the Conservatives was trending at 8.7%, with support for Labour having grown significantly at the end of August. Polling averages extrapolated in the three weeks running up to September 5 place Labour on 40.4%, as against the Conservatives’ 31.7%.1 So a Sir Keir Starmer government with a Labour majority suddenly no longer appears impossible (it was, of course, always possible).

Nor should we entirely discount a Boris Johnson comeback in the longer-term. Polls of Tory members at the beginning of the leadership contest had 35% wanting Johnson back - now it is 50%! For instance, you can readily imagine Liz Truss losing the next general election badly, with Johnson retaining his seat (assuming that he does not get kicked out of parliament by the Commons Select Committee on Standards). Now the script writes itself - you lost the Red Wall seats and only Boris Johnson has the answers - bring him back! Of course, it is not the Tory rank and file that decides these matters, but the MPs - a much harder hurdle to jump. But Boris might yet reclaim his crown.

Another factor to consider is what Liz Truss does in Europe, having made threatening noises about invoking article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol. This does not seem like a particularly smart thing to do when you are in the middle of an energy crisis, relying on Norway to export you gas, or France to continue supplying electricity under the English Channel. Friendly cooperation might be a better idea. Having said that, she does appear to be rowing back on her previously intransigent position. Citing her allies, the Financial Times has reported that Truss is not expected to trigger article 16 in the coming weeks. European Union officials now expect Truss to request an extension to the grace periods agreed by the EU and UK in 2020, to allow lighter controls on trade between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, which is due to expire on September 15.

But when did bashing the EU harm a Tory prime minister?


  1. politics.co.uk/reference/latest-opinion-polls.↩︎