Artillery Row Sketch

Hello Liz

Sweet offerings in the rain

“I can see Huw Edwards squatting,” the radio presenter next to me whispered into his microphone. We were back in Downing Street hours after saying farewell to Boris Johnson, to greet his successor, Liz Truss. We had been there for some time.

Johnson’s speech had been delivered in the brief hour when the sun shines directly into Downing Street, first thing in the morning. Truss was due to give hers in the late afternoon, by which time storm clouds had gathered. Has Johnson got some kind of deal with the weather gods? Was one of them in his year at Eton?

The lectern was in place and the new Downing Street team had trooped out to await her speech. This iteration of the Number 10 operation is going to be “slimmed down”, we hear. In six months, as things start to look a bit dicey, expect to read that it’s being “beefed up” with “experienced heavyweights”.

There was a thunderclap. For a few minutes they stood there with umbrellas up, hoping it might just be a light shower. And then the weather made it clear that it hadn’t been joking. The skies opened. MPs who had come to Downing Street to toady up to the new leader dashed inside for cover. The lectern, which had been covered with a statesmanlike bin bag, was hustled indoor too, and technicians dashed to cover their electronics.

Somewhere in central London, the new prime minister’s motorcade slowed down and began to take random turns in order to delay the moment of arrival. Inside the car, Truss was presumably warning aides against talking Britain into rain.

There are, obviously, rooms indoors that are available for prime ministers who want to talk to people when the weather is bad. This is Britain, after all. But one can forgive Truss for not wanting her first address to the nation to come from the Allegra Stratton Memorial Media Suite, which if not actually cursed, is certainly the subject of a pretty unpleasant hex.

The mood was, if you had remembered to bring an umbrella, tremendously jolly, like Wimbledon but for political types. We just needed Robert Peston to lead us all in a singalong of “Summer Holiday”. One imagined that somewhere Johnson, taking ten minutes out from whatever depraved way he was celebrating his new freedom, was laughing his head off at the pictures.

Eventually it eased. The lectern returned, and the aides appeared once more, slightly more cautious, and a little damper. And then we spotted, at the end of the street, a police outrider. The gates opened and Huw Edwards, anxious to get out of shot, began squatting. In came the car and out came Truss, striding up the street full of smirking purpose.

She opened by praising Johnson

She opened by praising Johnson. “History will see him as a hugely consequential prime minister,” she said. Let’s see about that. With her predecessor out of the way, she moved on to setting out her stall. “What makes the United Kingdom great is our fundamental belief in freedom, in enterprise, and in fair play,” she began, offering a clear dividing line with countries that believe in oppression, laziness and cheating. “Now is the time to tackle the issues that are holding Britain back.”

This is a tricky point, coming from our fourth successive Conservative prime minister, someone who has been in government for the last decade. She promised to “put our nation on the path to long-term success”, which raises the question of what path it’s currently on, and when she noticed this. The country needed to build things faster, she said, although the people who have just made her prime minister, Tory members, are generally against building anything at any speed.

Her speaking style, is, well, it’s the opposite of Johnson. Non-sequiturs aside — “we will get spades in the ground to make sure people are not facing unaffordable energy bills,” she said, as though promising to dig some electricity up — the sentences make sense and are arranged in some kind of coherent order. But her delivery is a touch “sixth former reading out prize essay”.

If she doesn’t have Johnson’s rhetorical skills, she is showing she can match him in other ways. Having opened the summer opposed to doing anything about energy bills, she is now promising to shovel money out of the door as fast as the Treasury can print it. It is a u-turn as screeching as anything her predecessor managed. She promised to build hospitals and schools, make sure people can see doctors, and also cut taxes. In 2019, the Conservatives were elected as Cake-ists, and Truss was pledging to govern as a Cake-ist.

“As strong as the storm may be, I know that the British people are stronger,” she said, having spent the most recent storm sheltering in the back of a Range Rover. “Together we can ride out the storm.” Some of us in an armoured car, some of us under an umbrella, some of us just getting very wet. Welcome to Liz Truss’s Britain.

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