An important trick of political communications is to ensure that you set the bar low enough for any performance to exceed expectations. In this respect at least the run up to Liz Truss’s Conference speech was a slam dunk: the political equivalent of preparing us for her running the Olympic sprint final not only with shoelaces tied together but in an atmospheric diving suit with full aqualung. As such, anything short of a covid cough, a robotic dance and letters dropping from the conference set was bound to be a winner. Those who criticise her speech for lacking new policies were hoping for a bear trap not even this administration were going to blunder into.
But when all the hyperventilation about mandates and coups is set aside, it is worth asking some serious questions about where we stand at the end of a conference season which comprised more wood than trees.
It started – or didn’t – with the cancellation (yet again) of the Lib Dems Conference – probably inevitable in the midst of a national period of mourning. The party was thus deprived not only of £200k due to a insurance policy that failed to cover the Queen’s death, but even of a whiff on the oxygen of publicity on which it is desperately reliant between irregular and unpredictable by-elections. As such, despite the much-reported collapse in the Conservate poll rating, the Lib Dems’ standing seems to have ticked
down rather than up, calling into question the party’s ability to sweep through the blue wall like a Ukrainian counter-attack. More on that later.
Instead, it was Keir Starmer’s ultra-organised and disciplined Labour troops who dug their toes into the Mersey sands and watched the Tory tide recede in every direction. The media commented time and again on the quality of Starmer’s speech and the positivity of the party faithful, but comparative loyalty and discipline are not that hard to maintain in the face of a Government showing all the sense of direction of a headless leghorn.
So when the tide turns again will Labour’s progress have been built on shifting sands or steel piles? There was some real policy substance in Starmer’s speech: the Great British Energy Company and the green prosperity plan, greater home ownership – whether desirable or not – and a red line on working with the SNP.
But on the other hand, Starmer remains Starmer: still charisma-free and with an uncanny ability to strangle the most beautifully crafted soundbite. Against Truss, these things may matter less and he comes across fundamentally as reassuringly human, but I wonder whether the public will ever want to drink a beer with him in a Durham working men’s club or give him the Johnsonian benefit of the doubt?
In his favour is that Truss and Kwarteng have managed in their own different ways at different times to look arrogant, robotic and utterly lacking in empathy. I fear for them that this impression once formed will be very hard to shift despite the relative competence of the PM’s first Conference address.
I would, however, sound a word of caution against judging too quickly: the moment of most significance in his speech may have been prompted not by her script but her rapid rebuttal of the Greenpeace hecklers: immediately, she seemed to come to life and responded with a degree of relish as they were removed from the hall, which was both authentic and powerful. Labour may hope that they have another Theresa May on their hands, but she could yet turn out to be an effective campaigner more in the model of John Major on his election soapbox.
There is a general assumption that the mini-budget and subsequent fallout was this Government’s Black Wednesday moment – a permanent scar from which they never recover. That may well be right, but with time (and there is time), a lot of economic luck, some opposition over-confidence, a failure of the Lib Dems to do their bit in the blue wall and a drawing back from the suicide pact to which most of the Parliamentary Conservative Party seemed to have sign up this week in Birmingham, the past fortnight could yet turnout to share more in common with Tony Blair’s mid-term petrol protests poll collapse from which that PM bounced back to win a landslide less than a year later.