Eleven years ago, Ed Miliband made a party conference speech that must have seemed a great idea at the time. It was a denunciation of predatory capitalism that in retrospect seems very prescient, and went down well enough in the hall. It was only afterwards, when journalists started challenging him to name names, that things hit the buffers. Come on, then; if they’re so awful, who are they, these bastards ruining life for everyone? The minute his team hesitated, presumably afraid of being sued, the pack pounced. Is Rupert Murdoch a predatory capitalist? What about the guy who runs BHS? Or Sainsbury’s, or Next? A somewhat bruised Miliband ended up insisting the point was not to make “moral judgments about individuals”. It’s easy to generalise about your enemies but hard, it turns out, to be specific.
Liz Truss has just fallen into a similar trap. The Conservative party audience clapped her attack on the “anti-growth coalition” she blamed for Tory failures to deliver over the last 12 years, because it was essentially a list of people they dislike: Scottish nationalists, Brexit deniers, north London liberals who say snide things about them on the BBC. It was only on contact with the real world that things began to fall apart.
In her speech, Truss championed Britain’s right to stuff itself on junk food. So is Jamie Oliver, patron saint of healthy eating, now an Enemy of Growth? Downing Street couldn’t rule out the possibility. Well, there’s a game any interviewer can play. Is national treasure David Attenborough, who has argued against prizing growth at all costs, on the axis of evil? What about Tory donors shorting the pound, or the Tory MP who famously vowed to lie down under a bulldozer to stop the expansion of Heathrow? (Blond guy, rumpled hair, don’t hear so much from him lately.) And then there’s the man who once argued that, instead of bankrupting the environment in an endless rush for growth, we must “see Nature’s capital and her processes as the very basis of a new form of economics”. That would be King Charles, currently banned from representing Britain at Cop27.
What I do give Truss credit for is drawing her dividing lines in crayon, not blood. This stuff is so patently silly that it lacks the malevolent power of previous Conservative attempts to create bogeymen – “citizens of nowhere”, say, or “enemies of the people” – which seemed to summon something truly horrible from the depths. Truss doesn’t instantly fall back on culture wars when in trouble, or at least not yet. She’ll hit you in the pocket, but not so much below the belt, at least not yet. Her oddly dispassionate tone – during her speech she never once explained in human terms how growth would actually change your life or mine – makes for poor demagoguery, a small but real mercy after the last few years. This all feels less like a sinister new government front opening up and more like something an opposition would say in its early, hit and miss stages; rather like the time William Hague’s team tried and failed to coin “pebbledash people” as a clunky catchphrase for the voters they wanted to attract.
There are sensible ideas buried somewhere beneath the chaos of the last fortnight, too, including an early but unsuccessful attempt to change the record on immigration. Truss’s growth plan would, we were told, create more avenues for legal immigration, a belated recognition that flourishing economies are open ones, which was promptly torpedoed this week by the home secretary, Suella Braverman, declaring that, personally, she’d like to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. But at least somewhere round the cabinet table is a rational head acknowledging that the post-Brexit pulling up of drawbridges has left crops rotting in the fields and exacerbated dire staff shortages in health and social care. There have been attempts to reset the relationship with the EU, too, amid tantalising rumours that a deal on the Northern Ireland protocol might be close enough to avoid a self-harming trade war with Europe. Even the growth argument masks a welcome recognition that Britain hasn’t built enough houses, and that they’ll have to go in someone’s back yard.
But successive Tory prime ministers have been pleading with Tory conferences to overcome their inner nimby for years now, and it’s not the fault of anyone on Truss’s ludicrous list that they haven’t. It’s not “Brexit deniers” who will knock an estimated 4% off Britain’s productivity either, but Brexit enthusiasts. She can’t honestly confront what holds a Conservative government back, because all too often it’s Conservatism.
Just as Miliband put his finger on something crucial in predatory capitalism, even if he couldn’t quite find the language to land it, Truss has identified a genuine issue with Britain’s ability to get stuff done. From big infrastructure projects to action on climate, governments of all stripes do constantly put off difficult decisions for the next lot. There might well be something refreshing about a Conservative party using its last months in power – and these do feel like its last months – to grasp some nettles, sparing its successor the job.
But that would require a commanding authority Truss doesn’t possess. Barely a month in, her cabinet already says and does more or less as it pleases. The old joke that no matter who leads the Conservatives, somehow Michael Gove always ends up in charge, rang true as he roamed the conference fringe dictating what look suspiciously like terms for backbench rebels – although interestingly, he’d agree with Truss on housebuilding. Mockery aside, she has clearly identified a problem. It’s just that, like disappointed oppositions down the ages, she isn’t going to be its solution.
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist