This lady is for turning

You turn if you want to, I already have


Liz Truss entered the House of Commons to a thin cheer. It’s a greeting that has become very familiar to watchers of the Conservative Party: the noise of a huddle that’s trying to sound like a throng. It had a slightly desperate air, and provoked laughter from the opposition benches that was at least wholehearted, if cruel. It was only her second prime minister’s questions, but already she had the air of a leader on life support.

If they don’t like an idea, it’s dead

The first question came from Labour’s Graham Stringer. The recent market chaos, he observed charitably, “was almost certainly an act of gross incompetence rather than malevolence”. He asked Truss about reports she was going to abandon planned protections for tenants. Could she assure the country they were going ahead?

“I can,” the prime minister said, and sat down. Is it still a U-turn if you had only briefed an idea to the Sunday papers? It doesn’t really matter. What’s significant is that all the talk of radicalism is now abandoned. Truss seems to have accepted that since Kwasi Kwarteng decided to point the plane at the ground and open the throttle, she cannot enforce her will on her MPs. If they don’t like an idea, it’s dead.

Over the following half-hour, she would also commit to a nanny-state-style public information campaign about energy-saving. There would be a couple of questions about fracking, to which Truss would reply that it would only go ahead with local consent. But there will be no fracking. From now on, the government’s policy innovations will be restricted to things that are universally popular and cost nothing.

Keir Starmer decided to keep punching the bruise, and asked about the economy. Truss has abandoned her previous approach of straightforward answers, and instead adopted the old Boris Johnson technique of ignoring the question and accusing her opponents of doing things she had done. But she doesn’t have his style. Where Johnson would throw out a dozen contradictory half-truths and misinterpretations, leaving Labour unclear on what he was claiming or how they should respond, Truss lacks the diamond-hard self-belief required for this kind of thing.

Behind her, Tory MPs were silent. Andrew Mitchell looked at his phone. You could say that she’d lost the room, except that it’s not clear she ever had it. To questions about mortgages, she offered answers about energy bills. Opposite her, Labour sounded happier than they have done in a decade. “I am genuinely unclear…” Truss began at one point, and was greeted with a roar of ironic cheers.

Something has flipped in Parliament

Tony Blair, who knew a thing or two about dealing with leaders of the opposition, said attacks on them had to be fundamentally plausible, something that people would nod along to in the pub. Truss’s line of attack on Starmer is that the Labour leader doesn’t want to give money to poor people. Johnson would have struggled to sell that one, and Truss simply doesn’t have it in her.

When the prime minister had gone – to cries of “More!” from the opposition – Labour’s Rachel Reeves had an urgent question on the economic mess. Chris Philp, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was answering. The benches behind him emptied, while Labour stayed in place, ready to give him a kicking.

Philp is a hard-faced man, all edges and angles. In another life, he’d be the person the bank sent to tell you it was your own fault he was repossessing your house. What he lacks in charm he makes up in menace. These are not, in fact, poor qualities in a man charged with controlling government spending.

But menace only works if it’s plausible. Philp opened by explaining that Kwarteng was unavailable because he was “in Washington having meetings with the IMF”. Labour, yet again, offered an ironic cheer. Philp tried to look unimpressed, like a news maths teacher who’s been told he has to show the class who’s boss. “Routine meetings which have been long-scheduled,” he added, and Labour just laughed. Philp raised his voice until it felt like he was shouting, but volume is a poor substitute for authority.

Something has flipped in Parliament. Labour, for so long the party that knew it was about to get beaten, even if it wasn’t exactly sure how, exudes confidence. Conservative MPs on the other hand have abandoned their government: Philp went 40 minutes without a single supportive question from his own side, which is a very long time in the House of Commons. Those he did get from Tories weren’t always helpful: Mel Stride of the Treasury Committee said he expected more U-turns. Philp, in reply, didn’t exactly rule that out. In all honesty, how could he?

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