Artillery Row Sketch

They’ll have what she’s having

The PM impressed the easily impressed

“What a conference it’s been!” Jake Berry, the Conservative Party chairman declared. This was, I am ashamed to admit, greeted with a loud burst of involuntary laughter from the press benches. “That wasn’t meant to be the funny bit,” Berry said, uncertainly.

It’s not clear which bit of his speech was intended to provoke laughter. Perhaps it was the bit where he described Liz Truss as “our greatest asset”, or his depiction of her, Meg Ryan-like, as the “Yes… Yes! YES! Prime Minister”, which left a mental image of which I fear I may never be free. And now, neither will you.

Berry set out what would be the theme of the morning, which is that the Tories, now in their twelfth year in office after a landslide election win, are actually pitiful weaklings, surrounded by powerful enemies. The exact identity of these dangerous foes was a matter of progressive revelation. Berry made the first attempt, decrying “the doomsayers, the naysayers”, who were “out on the media, fresh back from holiday, from talking down Brexit”. It wasn’t clear whether talking down Brexit was something that the naysayers had taken a holiday from or something they had gone on holiday to do. 

We would get the full definition from Truss herself, who walked on stage to a frankly demented standing ovation. This sort of thing is done by party members when they want to show how thoroughly United and Behind Their Leader they really are, but it generally feels a touch desperate. 

The prime minister, addressing her party conference as leader for the first – and quite possibly last — time, looked understandably nervous. At first, she clutched her water glass with both hands when she sipped from it, as though fearful of dropping it. 

She was saved, ironically, by some genuine naysayers

She was saved, ironically, by some genuine naysayers. Two protesters, dressed impeccably as Tory ladies of the shires, stood to wave a banner pointing out, not entirely unreasonably, that no one much had voted for any of Truss’s programme. The response was a shudder of energising outrage through the hall. The audience rose and tried to drown out the interlopers. Someone tore away their banner and, with the sort of enterprise that Tories really ought to celebrate, the pair produced a second. As they were bundled from the hall, someone to our left shouted “GO ON LIZ!” and the rest of the room cheered. Truss looked happy. The worst had happened, and she had survived it, and she knew that the audience was on her side. 

From then on, she was at least confident. Her delivery still leaves much to be desired. Arms waved symmetrically to emphasise points in a manner that was distractingly odd. The sideways glances to read the next line from the autocue made her look as though she was afraid the stage would be invaded by her opponents — radical green activists, Rishi Sunak supporters, or the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. The trademark smirk when she has delivered a line that the conference loves will make a fortune for the impressionist who nails it. 

The bigger problem with her speech though was the argument. “When the government plays too big a role,” she said, “people feel small.” That didn’t fit easily with the section before it about not feeling safe walking down the street at night or being able to get a doctor’s appointment. The idea that there aren’t enough police or GPs because the state has got too big is idiosyncratic. 

But that’s not the problem, of course. Truss was ready to tell us the real reason your kid can’t see a dentist. It is, apparently, the fault of “The Anti-Growth Coalition”. 

There was a frisson of excitement at this. Who, we wondered, were these perfidious wreckers trying to Keep Britain Small? Michael Gove, obviously, but who else? They were, she revealed, “Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP.” To which all we could think was: hang on – the Lib Dems? Were the Conservatives, the party of Disraeli and Churchill, really being thwarted by the Lib Dems, the party of Ed Davey and Tim Farron? 

Let’s just examine this for a moment. There are 14 Lib Dem MPs. There are more MPs called “John” than there are Lib Dems. They could fit their entire parliamentary party in a minibus. They’re no more capable of holding Britain back than they are of delivering electoral reform. Any readers who find themselves being held back by the Lib Dems are advised to simply keep walking and shoo them away firmly, if necessary swatting them with a “Focus” leaflet.

But there were not the only Opponents of British Greatness. Oh no. There were “the vested interests dressed up as think-tanks.” This may have been a reference to the Institute of Economic Affairs, who do indeed seem to have taken a wrecking ball to the country in the past couple of weeks. 

But still there were more members of this coalition, which was growing to such a size that it included just about everyone not in the Cabinet. Next in were “the talking heads, the Brexit deniers”. Truss went on: “They prefer protesting to doing. They prefer talking on Twitter to taking tough decisions. They taxi from North London townhouses to the BBC studio to dismiss anyone challenging the status quo. From broadcast to podcast, they peddle the same old answers.” 

When did the whine of self-pity become the default cry of the powerful

When did the whine of self-pity become the default cry of the powerful? Truss is a prime minister with a comfortable majority. She was standing on a stage making a speech that was being broadcast uninterrupted on several channels. It’s not podcasters that forced her to back down over tax this week, it was Conservative MPs, the same people who are going to stop any attempt to make it easier to build houses. It’s not the trades unions or Extinction Rebellion that are pushing up everyone’s mortgage rates, it’s the whiff of do-or-die craziness given off by government ministers. The talking heads on rolling news can certainly be awful, but we really can’t hold them responsible for the police’s refusal to investigate burglaries.  

But Truss and her party need an explanation for the state of the country that doesn’t involve the people who’ve been in charge for a decade, and so podcasters and the Lib Dems it will have to be. 

In the hall, this generated a deep rumble of approval. They had wanted an enemy, and now they had The Anti-Growth Coalition. Those of us who had both Twitter accounts and a record of travelling in BBC taxis shifted uneasily and prepared to fight our way out, armed only with our notebooks and our razor-sharp takes. 

“I am ready to make hard choices,” Truss said. And when people don’t like them, she didn’t add, she’s ready to unmake them. “You can trust me to do what it takes.” She was building to her climax. 

“We must stay the course,” she said. “That is how we will build a new Britain for a new era.”

The audience loved it. They rose to their feet, roaring approval. None of it meant anything in the wider world, where Tory MPs fear wipe-out and homeowners see their mortgage payments soaring. But for a moment at least, the party could feel good about itself. 

They’ll have what she’s having.

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