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Not What the Doctor Ordered: Truss Needs a Spin Class

Comment editor Fintan Hogan takes a sceptical look at Liz Truss’ first few weeks in office and attempts to prescribe something potent for her teething problems.

Since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election in 1933, new American Presidents are keen to make a huge success of their first one hundred days in office. They are a massive PR exercise, and ‘big wins’ in the first hundred days of a presidency often come to define it. This is the ideal time for big legislative bills, set piece public events and shows of party unity. The public may have some idea of Politician X, but Leader X is yet undefined in the mind of the public. This is the best opportunity that the press team will ever have.

But, oh Liz. So far, Truss’ tenure has been more misstep than step-up.

First, she was pilloried for past comments that she had made about the abolition of the monarchy, as her first weeks in office were subsumed into the royal funeral and succession arrangements. Yet this was hardly her fault. She did take the opportunity to make some statesperson-like public appearances, even if her chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng was caught laughing during the state funeral.

At least this afforded the top team at Number 10 more time to plan her centrepiece policy. An opportunity to gauge the reaction of MPs, interest groups, business and the public. At least, you would think. The ‘mini-budget’ was a catastrophic self-demolition of her political capital – something that The Guardian called “the maxi-disaster of the mini-budget”. The pound tanked. Her financial policies are the worst-received of any Tory government of the past 12 years. Her ‘firefighting’ interviews only fanned the flames, as she was lambasted on local radio.

10 days later, the mini-budget lay dead in the water. Government admits that they “got it wrong”. The party conference in Birmingham was a grim affair, contrasted by Labour’s celebratory mood in Liverpool. In September, Truss boldly declared that she was willing to do “unpopular things” to ‘fix’ the country; but her first hundred days now resemble John F. Kennedy’s, as he ordered the famously botched Bay of Pigs invasion 87 days into his spell in office.

Her own party is buckling beneath her. Prominent Conservative and long-standing Cabinet minister Michael Gove called her tax policy “a display of the wrong values”.  She is now under pressure to backtrack on her benefits policy, as prominent MP and former leadership opponent Penny Mordent slammed her decision to not raise benefits with the rate of inflation. Former Tory leader William Hague has joined a group of prominent activists warning that a ‘growth agenda’ could lead to ‘environmental vandalism’. Former Transport Minister Grant Shapps is apparently openly canvassing MPs on their opinions about Truss’ future. Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Olney (in a forthcoming interview for Roar) suggested that she had implemented policies without “contact with the real world” – indeed, I would add, without even contacting her own colleagues.

Only 32% of the parliamentary party ever voted for a Prime Minster Truss – and the cracks haven’t even been papered over but wrenched apart by her premiership. The party has fragmented into cliques. Only a month into her tenure, she is hosting backroom meetings to save her job. Her optics are shambolic.

And how the headline writers have revelled in her misfortune. In the past few days, I’ve enjoyed Thatcher satires like ‘U Turn When We Want To’, while the Daily Mirror called it the ‘Calamity Conference’ and the Daily Mail bluntly told her to ‘Get a grip!’. Hannah Apen, writing for Roar, derided the mini-budget as ‘KamiKwazi’.

At the time of writing (10th October), YouGov reports that 71% of respondents believe that Liz Truss is doing “badly” as Prime Minister, and only 11% think that she is doing “well”. Boris Johnson, in comparison, was thrown from office with 68% disapproval, 35% approval. Truss has had a plane crash of a honeymoon period.

So, three weeks into her tenure, the PR team is on an election-footing. Her social media policy has been to furiously retweet minor policy landmarks, and to blatantly electioneer with short videos of her lauding ‘British values’. Her only popular posts relate to Ukraine, and this has leant her a measure of credibility. But she cannot run on foreign policy, particularly when no force in British politics opposes continued support for the government of Ukraine.

 

At the moment, what Team Truss is delivering is less what the spin doctor ordered, more press paramedics; they rush from crisis to crisis to resuscitate what remains of her patched-up agenda. Her failure to listen to experts, as MP Olney reminded me, has alienated the markets, the party and most importantly the public in one fell swoop.

If she hopes to govern effectively, Truss will need to show more flexibility in her approach. The public have no appetite for her smorgasbord of free-market policies. Best she remembers that she might have the most incredulous mandate of any Prime Minister in history. Whatever your opinion about her ideology, her political position makes it sensible to follow public opinion and economic orthodoxy – not to be scolded by the IMF.

Labour and the Lib Dems are on an election-footing, and scared Tories worry that she will jeopardise their seats. PM Truss hangs by a thread – more sudden swings and she should expect a nasty fall.

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