Picture credit: Ian Forsyth - Pool/Getty Images
Artillery Row Sketch

A hopeful debut

But beware of disappointments

It was raining outside, of course, which served as confirmation of the theory among some of Liz Truss’s supporters that there is clear left-wing bias in the weather. This helps to explain why Conservatives treat wind and solar power with such suspicion. They have heard people talking about climate change, and fear the elements can’t be trusted not to go on strike.

Inside, the chamber of the House of Commons was full. Everyone wanted to get a look at the new act. There was no sign of the previous guy. Perhaps he was on holiday again. It has, after all, been several days since his last one. 

Two minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions was due to start, Truss swept in. Boris Johnson used to work himself up before going on, standing behind the Speaker’s chair, bouncing on his feet a little like a boxer before a fight, or perhaps an adulterer getting ready to flee the scene. While he was doing this, a little team of MP supporters would orbit him, trying to make him presentable. Truss, on the other hand, went straight to her seat. She can dress herself without help, putting her ahead of her predecessor in at least one respect.

Theresa May was there, looking as happy as I’ve seen her in, oh, three years and 45 days. As Truss began the incantation that opens every PMQs — “This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today” — May mouthed along behind her, bobbing her head from side to side. It’s hard to know what event this week might be responsible for May’s jollity. Maybe she’s just really pumped about the new Lord Of The Rings series. 

Keir Starmer welcomed Truss to her post, and asked if she’d meant it when she said she was against a windfall tax on energy companies. Truss spoke slowly in reply, and seemed to have deepened her voice a little. “I am against a windfall tax,” she said. “I believe it is the wrong thing to be putting companies off investing in the UK.”

It took a moment to realise why this felt so odd. The Labour leader had asked a question, the prime minister had answered it, explaining her reasoning. They did this a couple more times, politely but firmly discussing the case for such a tax — energy companies are coining it right now — and against — low taxes promote growth. Suddenly enlightenment came.

For the last three years, PMQs has been a blizzard of obfuscation, denial and distraction. Johnson’s approach to Starmer’s questions was to fire back a blizzard of words, often at high speed, rarely connected to the point in question. In Truss’s place, by this point he’d have talked about vaccination, Jeremy Corbyn and the nuclear deterrent. If he’d mentioned taxes at all, he’d have claimed to be both lowering and raising them. It was impressive or frustrating, depending on your point of view, but rarely enlightening. The relationship between his answers and Starmer’s questions was tangential at best. Truss, by contrast, offered brief, replies that were perfectly on topic. 

We shouldn’t get starry-eyed about this. The prime minister’s claim that George Osborne’s cut in corporation tax had led to increased revenues will be picked over by fact-checkers. She is perfectly capable of swerving questions she doesn’t want to answer. 

But on Wednesday she did want to answer. She believes that cutting taxes will boost growth, and she knows this is the sort of thing her side likes to hear. 

Starmer said Truss was on the side of Amazon and Shell. She replied she was “on the side of people who work hard and do the right thing”. On the whole, the Labour benches sounded like they were enjoying it more than the Tories. Finally, Starmer replied that there was “nothing new” about a Conservative who was making working people pay. “There is nothing new about a Labour leader who is calling for more tax rises,” Truss fired back. Her side loved that, something they could properly cheer. “It is the same old, same old tax and spend,” she went on. Her alternative, of course, is borrow and spend, which the Tories used to be against, but weren’t worrying about that. 

May later asked Truss why she thought the Conservatives had produced all three of Britain’s female prime ministers. Part of the answer to this is that the Tories have been in power a lot more, and part is that recently they’ve been getting through prime ministers at a fair old clip. But even Starmer laughed at Truss’s reply that Labour seemed to struggle to find a leader who wasn’t a man from North London. 

It was all quite refreshing

In a funny way, both Truss and Starmer will have been happy with the session. The prime minister avoided any first-day errors and got a couple of laughs and a few cheers. Meanwhile both are happy with their dividing lines. Truss believes tax cuts will bring growth. Starmer believes a windfall tax would be popular. At some point, voters will get to decide. It was all quite refreshing. 

As we came out afterwards, the storm had cleared and the sun had come out. The air felt clearer. It was like a metaphor for something. 

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