LONDON, Oct 2 — After a week of market turmoil, dismal headlines and disastrous polls, British Prime Minister Liz Truss faces a TV grilling today at the start of her restive Conservative party’s annual conference.
Less than a month into the job, the new Tory leader will sit down with the BBC in Birmingham, where the party is kicking off its four-day gathering, and is expected to again defend her controversial economic plans.
Opposition parties, much of the public and even Conservative MPs — notably backers of her defeated leadership rival Rishi Sunak — are aghast at the debt-fuelled proposals to cut taxes unveiled by Truss and finance minister Kwasi Kwarteng.
Markets tanked in response to the package, and the Bank of England staged an emergency intervention to bail out embattled pension funds, setting the stage for a difficult few days in Birmingham.
Breaking nearly a week of silence, Truss held a round of broadcast interviews with regional BBC stations on Thursday — when her awkward pauses generated almost as many headlines as her defence of the plan.
She then followed up with further interviews and a newspaper article Friday in which she vowed to press on with the policies but get “an iron grip” on public finances.
“I am going to do things differently. It involves difficult decisions and does involve disruption in the short term,” she wrote in The Sun tabloid.
“Not everyone will like what we are doing, but I want to reassure the public that the government has a clear plan that I believe is right for the country.”
Today’s live TV appearance is her first before a national UK audience since Kwarteng unveiled the contentious proposals on September 23, and comes after a raft of polls showed a dramatic slump for her party.
One poll Friday by YouGov found that 51 per cent of Britons think that Truss should resign — and 54 per cent want Kwarteng to go.
Several other polls in recent days showed the opposition Labour party with mammoth leads of up to 33 points over the Conservatives — its biggest since the heyday of former Labour prime minister Tony Blair in the late 1990s.
Echoing Blair, Labour leader Keir Starmer says that his party now represents mainstream UK voters, and has demanded Truss recall parliament rather than press ahead with her conference.
As it is, both Sunak and former prime minister Boris Johnson are reportedly staying away from Birmingham.
But Truss will have plenty of critics lying in wait at what the Tories bill as Europe’s largest annual political event.
Protesters angry at rising energy bills and the government’s handling of the worsening cost-of-living crisis massed in London and Birmingham Saturday, with more demonstrations planned for the start of the Tory conference today.
Kwarteng is due to address the party’s grassroots tomorrow, before Truss closes the gathering with the leader’s keynote speech on Wednesday.
Although both have ruled out a U-turn on their economic package, they conceded ground Friday by allowing the Office for Budget Responsibility to send Kwarteng an initial independent costing score-card of it later next week.
The conference programme has already been pared back to eliminate some of its fringe partying following the September 8 death of Queen Elizabeth II — who appointed Truss only two days before she died.
Not that there is much to celebrate for the Tories, given their poll ratings, which have fuelled speculation that Truss could face her own leadership challenge, or that she may sacrifice Kwarteng.
Many commentators are urging contrition from the duo in Birmingham, to avoid the kind of doomsday scenario laid out by senior Tory MP Charles Walker.
A general election is not due until January 2025 at the latest. But if one were held tomorrow, Walker said, “we would cease to exist as a functioning political party”. — AFP