Economy

Liz Truss triumphs – but she is already running out of time | Liz Truss

As Liz Truss addresses the nation for the first time as prime minister on Tuesday afternoon, she may be forced to do it from the shelter of a grand Downing Street stateroom rather than at the traditional lectern outside.

But the thunderclouds forecast to gather over central London are not restricted to the weather, with the new prime minister facing an economic storm as soaring inflation and energy bills inflict pain on millions of families and businesses.

A month ago, Truss rejected “handouts” as the best way to help households through the worst income squeeze in 60 years, promising tax cuts and economic reform instead, and has stuck strictly to the script ever since.

But her ambitions to pursue a Thatcherite approach to the economy have since collided with the reality of the crisis. The Treasury has drawn up a suite of options for the new prime minister to pick from, and the favourite – a freeze on energy bills – involves both big handouts and a huge price tag.

Labour is gearing up to attack Truss as an ideologue, focusing on her ambitions to tear up workers’ rights and reduce the size of the state, and with it public spending on already cash-strapped services like schools and hospitals. They have today launched a major advertising campaign on billboards across red wall towns, telling key voters that “she is not on your side”.

Allies, though, claim that she is a practical, logical politician who has already demonstrated a Johnson-like ability to transform from from a student Lib Dem republican to a rightwing Tory culture warrior, and from a Remainer during the EU referendum to a passionate Brexiter. They suggest she will be able to deploy this flexibility while in office.

But time is not on Truss’s side.

The polls, which already had the Tories trailing Labour by 10 points, slumped even further on the news of her announcement. A YouGov poll on Monday found that just 19% of people said they were confident in her cost of living policies, while a huge 67% said they were not confident.

Tory insiders believe she has a matter of weeks for a policy blitz to deal not just with the cost of living crisis, but also with all the other domestic challenges in her overflowing No 10 in-tray.

New leaders generally experience a healthy bounce in the polls, but if she fails to deliver this, or even goes backwards, her already restless party will become mutinous.

Yet Truss supporters warn that she should not be underestimated, saying she is a diligent and competent minister who has more government experience than almost all her predecessors and a firm idea of what she wants to do.

One ally says: “As a leader, you need to be able to take decisions; she can do that. She’s a hard worker and has no lazy sense of entitlement like Cameron or Boris. She knows that she doesn’t have much time, but she’s determined to use what she does have.”

But alongside her challenging in-tray, Truss also has serious party management issues ahead. Less than a third of Tory MPs backed her in the parliamentary round of the contest, and while a few have since rowed in behind her, there remains deep scepticism towards her right across on the backbenches.

Her plans to tackle the energy crisis, and to transform the economy to boost growth, will require legislation, and that means she urgently needs their support. Yet there is already talk of disgruntled MPs plotting to put in letters to trigger another leadership contest before she has even entered office.

Truss has been under pressure to appoint a cabinet that tries to unite the party. But allies have already rejected such a move, suggesting it would mean giving jobs to those who had openly criticised her throughout the bruising leadership campaign.

“She would be appointing people who didn’t support her. People who very publicly said her ideas were shit and she’s incompetent,” a senior Tory MP supporter says.

“They’d go on the Today programme to announce some big new policy, but would be asked whether they still believed all that about her. If you can’t pass that credibility test, that makes it very difficult.”

One loyalist minister adds: “She has made it clear that she’s going to take the government in a different direction. She can’t have a whole load of people who are supposed to be on her team saying, ‘That’s mental.’”

The margin of Truss’s victory – she won the support of 57.4% of Tory members to Rishi Sunak’s 42.6% – was also narrower than many had expected.

She won by a lower margin than any previous Tory leader chosen by members, the only one out of Iain Duncan Smith, David Cameron and Boris Johnson to have secured less than 60% of the vote. This may not have been the decisive mandate she would have wanted.

Watchful Tory MPs are already trading Whatsapp messages about focus groups that suggest that the better the public gets to know Truss, the less they like her. Inauthenticity is one of the concerns that has been cited.

The gathering political storm clouds show no sign of lifting.

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