A resounding defeat

Can Truss turn things around?

Artillery Row Sketch

Liz Truss wanted us to know that she’d learned lessons. Less than a month into the job, and with people already discussing whether she should be fired, it’s fair to say things aren’t going to plan, and she looked pretty knackered.

So we got an apology, of sorts. “We should have laid the ground better,” she told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday morning. “I do accept that. And I, I have learned from that. I have learned from that and I will make sure that in future, we do a better job of laying the ground.” The lesson she takes from the past week, in other words, is that ordinary mortals can’t keep up with her galactic intellect, and so she needs to explain things to us more slowly, in even more of a monotone.

Just as Truss had been about to begin her interview, the screen had gone black. Usually, we’d suspect sabotage by opponents, but given the prime minister’s recent interview record, it seemed more likely that the line had been cut by one of her supporters.

The party chairman, Jake Berry, was live on Sky News at the same moment, explaining that people who couldn’t afford their bills should simply try earning more money, so at least he has an alibi, and one too daft to have been plausibly faked. We got her back, mid-sentence, presumably after someone at the BBC fed £50 into the meter.

Much of the interview was Truss trying to pretend that the turmoil of the last week was the result of people having failed to understand her plans. Her case is that everyone is upset about the move to contain energy bills, when pretty much the only person in Britain to have suggested these might be a bad idea is July-era Liz Truss. She got away with it then because, in a big clue about how things would work out, no one believed her.

It was a long, tetchy exchange. The prime minister was more fluent than she had been on Thursday morning, when the long silences as local radio presenters asked her about mortgages and fracking suggested that she was being rebooted. But there was no opening chit-chat about life in Number 10 or meeting the president. As Truss began to launch into long answers to questions that hadn’t been asked, Kuenssberg would put out her hand to try to stop her. Truss would then raise her own arm to try to keep the subject. You could tell how badly things were going by how high Truss’s arm had got on the screen.

She seemed oddly reluctant to talk

For all her claims that she wanted to explain her plans better, she seemed oddly reluctant to talk about them. What has upset MPs and voters is an unfunded tax cut for the rich. What seems to have spooked the markets is the impression it left that Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng are fanatics who believe that cutting taxes will pay for itself. But whenever anyone asks her about these things, she gives a reply about energy bills.

“Let’s remember what the alternative was,” Truss said, when challenged about tax cuts. Slightly poorer bankers? No. “The alternative was people would be paying up to £6,000 on their energy bills.” Her hand was almost at shoulder height.

Just offstage was a panel which included Michael Gove. The last time Truss appeared on the show, the panel had, notoriously, featured Joe Lycett, a comedian. Putting Gove in instead represents a shift in approach. One used his slot to offer extravagant, fawning claims of support for Truss while actually setting out to sabotage her, and the other wanted us to know he’s appearing at the Brighton Dome next Friday.

Gove assured us that Truss would still be prime minister in a year, because she was certain to back down over her tax cuts. Truss at one point directed a smile in his direction that wasn’t so much insincere as murderous. She might have preferred Lycett.

Had she discussed the tax cut with the Cabinet? “No, we didn’t,” she said. “It was a decision that the Chancellor made.” Was this a deliberate distancing of herself from Kwarteng? It may have been unconscious. But it was a distancing, nonetheless.

What did she think of the Chancellor’s decision to go and sip champagne with hedge fund managers in the wake of his mini-budget? “I do not manage Kwasi Kwarteng’s diary, believe me,” she laughed,  the final phrase freighted with meanings that remained sadly unexplored.

Was she worried about how it looked, cutting taxes for the very rich while refusing to say whether benefits to the poorest would keep up with inflation? “There has been too much focus in politics about the optics,” the prime minister, who has barely made a cup of tea without a vanity photographer in the last year, replied.

Why hadn’t the Office for Budget Responsibility been allowed to offer a view on the government plans? “We simply didn’t have time,” Truss replied. “It was a very urgent situation.” There were millionaires wondering what to buy themselves for Christmas, and it’s a 12-week wait on a new Porsche.

Couldn’t she let us see the OBR’s report now? “There’s no point in publishing something that’s not ready,” the prime minister replied. Another lesson learned.

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