BIRMINGHAM, England, Oct 5 (Reuters) – Prime Minister Liz Truss asked her Conservative Party on Wednesday to trust her, pledging to steer Britain through “stormy days” and transform a stagnant economy in a pitch to restore her authority over a party in revolt.
Addressing Conservative lawmakers and members at an annual conference beset by internal bickering and policy confusion, Truss sought to reassure her party, the public and investors that her plan was the right way to reignite growth.
An early interruption from protesters holding a banner asking “who voted for this?” seemed to fire up the audience and the prime minister, whose criticism of what she called “the anti-growth coalition” received loud cheers and applause.
For many in the audience, Truss, who has admitted that she is not the slickest communicator, had done a decent job at a time when she is under pressure from what one Conservative member called “some snakes in the party” undermining her plans.
Says change means ‘disruption’ but also economic growth
She might have bought herself a little more time to reassert herself over a party that is increasingly divided and fearful about opinion polls showing it could be all but wiped out in a national election. Some Conservative lawmakers are openly questioning whether she should be in charge.
“I am ready to make hard choices. You can trust me to do what it takes. The status quo is not an option,” she told the party faithful in the central English city of Birmingham.
“We gather at a vital time for the United Kingdom. These are stormy days ….. We need to step up. I’m determined to get Britain moving, to get us through the tempest and to put us on a stronger footing.”
The conference, once expected to be Truss’s crowning glory after she became prime minister on Sept. 6, had turned into a personal nightmare after she announced a new economic policy that sparked a crisis of confidence among investors.
Her attempt to cut 45 billion pounds ($51 billion) of taxes and hike government borrowing sent markets into a tailspin and left her party facing potential electoral collapse.
Forced to reverse the scrapping of the top rate of tax, Truss was then openly challenged by lawmakers and ministers over other policy areas, in stark contrast to the sense of discipline on display last week at a conference of the opposition Labour Party, which now holds a clear lead in the opinion polls.
Khatija Meaby, a 75-year-old grandmother from London, said Truss “is never going to be an electrifying speaker. However, she is right that we have to grow the economy”.
Another conference attendee, Dimabo Wolseley, 51, a barrister also from the capital, said Truss had appeared “very confident”, despite the “snakes in the party. If they continue to cause trouble they should be kicked out.”
As she started to speak on Wednesday, two climate protesters from Greenpeace held up a sign asking “Who voted for this?”, referring to Truss’s radically different direction to her predecessor Boris Johnson who won the last election in 2019.
Truss, in contrast, was appointed only by party members.
“Cutting taxes is the right thing to do, morally and economically,” Truss said, adding that the scale of the challenge ahead was “immense”.
Her tax U-turn has emboldened sections of her party who are now likely to resist spending cuts as the government seeks ways to fund the overall fiscal programme.
That risks not only the dilution of her “radical” agenda but also raising the prospect of an early election.
Having entered the conference hall to a standing ovation and the sound of M People’s “Moving On UP”, Truss told the party she wanted to build a “new Britain for the new era”.
‘WHO VOTED FOR THIS?’
“For too long, the political debate has been dominated by how we distribute a limited economic pie. Instead, we need to grow the pie so that everyone gets a bigger slice,” she said.
“That is why I am determined to take a new approach and break us out of this high-tax, low-growth cycle.”
Some lawmakers fear Truss will break a commitment to increase benefit payments in line with inflation, something they argue would be inappropriate at a time when millions of families are struggling with the cost of soaring prices.
Ministers say they are yet to take a decision and are obliged to look at economic data later this month.
While markets have largely stabilised after the Bank of England stepped in to shore up the bond market – albeit after the cost of borrowing surged – opinion polls now point to an electoral collapse for the Conservatives.
weakened against the dollar, ending a six-day rally but staying well off recent lows, as Truss spoke.
John Curtice, Britain’s best known pollster, said before the speech that Labour now held an average lead of 25 percentage points and the Conservatives needed to accept they were “in deep, deep electoral trouble”.
($1 = 0.8787 pounds)
(Writing by Kate Holton and Elizabeth Piper; Additional reporting by William James and Farouq SuleimanEditing by Mark Heinrich and John Stonestreet