How Liz Truss handles today’s first Commons clash at PMQs will mould the tone and style of her reign. It’s not the be-all and end-all – but it matters as she sets out with the lowest public expectations. Few like her, few wanted her, few of her MPs back her. Just 13% of voters trust her to make the right cost of living decisions. Only 12% expect her to be a good prime minister. Even among Tory voters, the more they see of her, the faster her ratings tumble.
Yet her party has foisted her on an unwilling country, a rightwinger wildly out of step with the mood of the times, when people want more from government, not less. How ill-judged her extravagant praise of her disgraced predecessor, whose sins are not forgiven by voters. No wonder a majority now wants an election and the chance to be rid of her.
The truism is that she has nowhere to go but up. She is destined for a bounce because new prime ministers always get one. Voters always live in hope and they will be relieved at her promise to tackle energy bills – the only part of her pedestrian speech outside Downing Street likely to engage the public at all.
The rest was that heart-sink “aspiration nation” copper-plate politico-speak that gives politics a bad name, alarmingly lacking any sense of the country’s imminent peril. Voters will notice that her expected price freeze is stolen straight from Labour, again making the running from opposition benches. They will certainly notice that she takes the money from taxpayers’ funds, her “no new taxes” and “no windfalls” ignoring strong public support for Labour’s plan to pay with a windfall on energy companies’ monster £170bn profiteering.
In the face of failing public services, her tax cuts – she told Laura Kuenssberg it was “fair” to take billions from the public purse to reward the richest with £1,800 and the poorest with just £7.66 – will look perverse, and grotesquely unjust. That kind of extremism will shock most people in a country already Europe’s most unequal (bar Bulgaria). Politically, her tax cuts will contrast badly with the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’s pledge to abolish billions in tax relief for the rich. Nor does cutting tax grow the economy: Ben Zaranko of the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out to me how Europe’s highest taxing countries have the strongest growth.
The upshot of all this? Labour will surely win the next election. Truss will be battered from a damaging campaign, and Labour will be gifted victory by a Tory party that began losing its marbles long ago. Governments also lose elections when living standards fall. Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation says: “Even if things work out much better than currently expected, it’s hard for this parliament not to break all records as the worst for living standards.” Remember that even if inflation stops rising by the next election, prices won’t fall, leaving people still distraught. Here’s his firm verdict: “If the current outlook doesn’t shift then it would be completely unprecedented for Liz Truss to win the next election.”
Her brief polling bounce will not unnerve Labour, after its long polling lead. Below the radar, the party releases well-crafted social media video messages from a more confident Keir Starmer: voters don’t need to worship him, just to trust he will make an excellent prime minister after four duds in a row, whose austerity, Brexit calamity and incompetence has brought the country low. Rallying his troops at Westminster this week, he pointed to the open goal of Tory treatment of public services: “You may as well leave a python looking after your pet hamster.” Truss’s previous jobs leave her vulnerable, as Labour plasters social media and “red wall” seats with posters and QR codes listing her disasters, such as closing down gas storage and her £235m “efficiency saving” that crippled the Environment Agency’s testing of rivers and seas.
Labour’s mood is chipper. And so it should be. Consider Truss herself, her rebarbative style and tin ear for the public mood. Her leaked recording attacking British workers for lack of “graft” while praising more productive Londoners has hit home with voters. In focus groups, Labour finds half the participants raise it with spontaneous indignation, with the other half outraged when the tape is played.
That helps Labour to promote its own key policies. When Truss confronts strikers, pledging to restrict the right to strike and cancel EU working protections, she hopes the blame for disruptions lands on Labour. But rail staff have public support and two-thirds of voters back a strike by nurses.
Her aggression will shine a contrasting spotlight on Labour’s strong employment rights policy. For those complaining about Starmer barring shadow ministers from picket lines, look at the radicalism of Labour employment policies, worth listing in detail: a new right for unions to recruit in every workplace will send membership soaring where people need unions most. Fair pay agreements across every sector to reset decades of low pay, turning the tables on bad employers of delivery drivers and warehouse workers. A ban on zero-hours contracts, “fire and rehire” and bogus self-employment comes with a guarantee of working rights from day one and makes flexible hours the norm. All this would transform millions of working lives. If Truss wants a red line on working rights, bring it on, Labour says.
But will she really do all she threatens? Never underestimate her shapeshifting agility. Starmer has warned his MPs: “She’s a talented politician … she’s nobody’s fool.” Yet she could box herself in with a rigid small-state, low-tax, free-market Brexiteer cabinet. Facing the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg glaring across the table, could she step back from the madness of igniting an EU trade war? Starmer’s “make Brexit work” stance pained pro-Europeans, but it lets Labour slam Truss for everything that makes Brexit worse. Didn’t the Tories claim they’d got it “done”?
Her reign may be nasty, brutish and short. Her bounce might tempt her to dash for a snap election, as nothing will ever be as good again, but she would still lose. She and her press will rummage for absurd culture war distractions: it won’t work, with the NHS, social care, schools and the law collapsing around her.
In the spirit of this leftward tide, where voters demand the state as their protector, sewage has become the emblem for bad memories of all the failed Thatcher privatisations. Yes, OK, I know how often in my lifetime Labour has had near-victory snatched by the relentless drag of Tory hegemony – and the brutally unjust electoral system. But listen to Liz Truss, look at the flailing Tory project, and it’s clear that this time Labour should fear nothing but fear itself.
Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist