After a week of market turmoil, bleak headlines and disastrous polls, Britain’s Prime Minister Liz Truss stands in front of a TV barbecue on Sunday as the annual conference of her troubled Conservative Party kicks off.
Less than a month after taking office, the new Tory leader is set to sit down with the BBC in Birmingham, where the party begins its four-day meeting, and is expected to defend her controversial economic plans again.
Opposition parties, much of the public and even Conservative MPs – particularly supporters of their defeated rival Rishi Sunak – are appalled by the debt-fueled tax cut proposals unveiled by Truss and Finance Minister Kwasi Kwarteng.
Markets collapsed in response to the package and the Bank of England launched emergency intervention to bail out struggling pension funds, setting the stage for a difficult few days in Birmingham.
Breaking nearly a week of silence, Truss conducted a round of radio interviews with regional BBC stations on Thursday – when her awkward pauses drew almost as many headlines as her defense of the plan.
She then followed up with more interviews and a newspaper article on Friday in which she vowed to move forward with politics but to get “an iron grip” on public finances.
“I will do things differently. It involves tough decisions and short-term disruptions,” she wrote in the tabloid The Sun.
“Not everyone will like what we’re doing, but I want to reassure the public that the government has a clear plan that I believe is right for the country.”
Sunday’s live TV appearance is her first before a national UK audience since Kwarteng unveiled the controversial proposals on September 23 and comes after a series of polls showed a dramatic slump for her party.
A poll by YouGov on Friday found 51 per cent of Britons believe Truss should step down – and 54 per cent want Kwarteng to leave.
– existential threat? –
Several other polls in recent days have shown the opposition Labor Party by a mammoth lead of up to 33 points over the Conservatives – the widest since former Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair’s heyday in the late 1990s.
Echoing Blair, Labor leader Keir Starmer says his party now represents mainstream British voters and has urged Truss to recall Parliament rather than go ahead with their conference.
Both Sunak and former Prime Minister Boris Johnson are reportedly staying away from Birmingham.
But Truss will have plenty of critics on the lookout for what the Tories are calling Europe’s biggest annual political event.
Protesters angered by rising energy bills and the government’s handling of the worsening cost-of-living crisis rallied in London and Birmingham on Saturday, with more demonstrations planned for the start of Sunday’s Tory conference.
Kwarteng will address the party’s rank and file Monday before Truss closes the gathering on Wednesday with the chairman’s keynote address.
Although both have ruled out a U-turn on their economic package, they backed down on Friday by allowing the Office of Budgetary Responsibility to send an initial independent cost scorecard of it to Kwarteng later next week.
The conference program has already been cut to eliminate some of its fringe parties following the death of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8 – whom Truss appointed just two days before her death.
Not that there’s much for the Tories to celebrate given their poll numbers, which have fueled speculation that Truss might face her own leadership challenge or that she might sacrifice Kwarteng.
Many commentators are urging the duo to repent in Birmingham to avoid the kind of doomsday scenario concocted by senior Tory MP Charles Walker.
A parliamentary election is scheduled for January 2025 at the latest. But if one were held tomorrow, Walker said, “we would cease to exist as a functioning political party.”