Liz Truss started her Conservative conference schedule this week by grilling at the BBC. The Sunday morning interview is a rite of passage for a party leader preparing for conference; attendance is nothing short of mandatory— lest you be accused of evading scrutiny.
What is the point of a grilling session before a week’s worth of rapturous applause?
Unfortunately for Truss, the Conservative party is feeling anything but ‘faithful’ at the moment.
Indeed, as Truss and Laura Kuenssberg sparred on the topic of the mini-budget, over the BBC journalist’s shoulder—directly in the prime minister’s eye-line—sat Michael Gove, Truss’ former Cabinet colleague, recently subjected to an unceremonious sacking by her predecessor.
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Sitting just feet away, Gove implied he would vote against the abolition of the top tax rate, the headline policy of the “mini-budget”. He told Kuenssberg that borrowing to pay for tax cuts is “not Conservative” and demonstrated “the wrong values”.
Truss loyalists thought this was Gove going back to his Machiavellian ways. Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg branded Gove the Conservative party’s “version of Peter Mandelson” at a fringe event the following day.
But Gove’s intervention had a real political effect.
The Conservative backbench rebellion against the mini-budget grew in intensity over that Sunday. Sir Graham Brady and the PM met immediately that evening. According to reports, Truss was told by the Chair of the 1922 Committee that her 45p plan would not work with her bullish backbenchers. On Monday morning, a U-turn was announced just over a week following the presentation of the mini-budget to the Commons on September 23rd.
Marker pens were hastily applied to Kwarteng’s planned speech later that day. “Staying the course” turned quickly to “We are listening and we have listened”.
These circumstances proved to be perfect for Michael Gove who was in high demand and whose ambitious fringe program (nine events) ensured that he was always in the minds of everyone. Some even referred to the former education secretary as “King of the fringe”.
The talismanic Tory is not universally revered by Conservatives. Speaking at one fringe event, home secretary Suella Braverman accused the former levelling up secretary of staging “a coup” against the prime minister. She urged Gove not to “air dirty linen” in public.
Braverman was joined by Gove at an instructive fringe session later in week. For those who are fascinated by the blue-on-blue ideological tussles Conservative Home’s “Future of Conservatism” panel Was a must-see event.
Addressing a packed-out audience, Gove explained in his inimitable style: “We need to remember why we won in 2019. The 2019 election victory … was a victory, yes, for a conservatism that believed in growth, enterprise, free markets and the Promethean spirit that is responsible for driving forward progress. … But it also recognised two other things as well. … The thing about capitalism is it generates two problems, inequality and dirt. And Boris got that, perhaps more than any Conservative leader in the course of whatever”.
These comments echoed the contribution of Damian Green, another high-profile member of the “Future of Conservatism” panel. The Chair of the One Nation Conservative caucus declared: “Libertarianism cannot be the central purpose of a Conservative government. If it is, the Government is fooling itself and not being conservative”.
Both Green and Gove’s comments departed markedly from Braverman’s introductory remarks. “I am excited to be in the Liz Truss administration”, Braverman explained, “[Truss’] priority is about going for growth, and that means lowering the tax burden, stripping the state out of our lives, reducing the excessive regulation and liberating the private entrepreneurial spirit that is the genius that has made this country great”.
There was no attempt to reconcile her views with Green and Gove’s softer, Cameroon-style Conservatism—not even lip service.
At another fringe setting, Michael Gove joined Conservative chair Jake Berry, another Truss ally who had warned that morning that the whip will be removed from MPs who voted against the “mini budget”. Gove did not waste time: “The majority Boris got in 2019 was a One Nation majority…. We’ve got to stay true to that tradition and recognise that people who lent us their vote in 2019 wanted to see a One Nation, compassionate government”. In rebuttal, Jake Berry affirmed that he thought the 45p tax rate cut “was the right thing to do”.
Unworried by threats from the whips office and unencumbered by the constraints of Cabinet collective responsibility, Gove roamed the Conservative party fringe providing a “one nation” alternative to “Trussonomics”. The paternalist-libertarian dispute within the party has hence been revived, following an extended ceasefire during Boris Johnson’s tenure as PM. Without Brexit to unite around and with the party’s right-wing in the ascendant, “one nation” advocates like Gove are ready to make noise.
One cannot help but think that the “anti-growth coalition”, – Truss’ new, slightly Orwellian catch-all term for opponents of her “mini-budget” – includes rebel Conservatives like Michael Gove. The government’s fiscal approach is plainly at odds with Gove’s “one-nation” instincts, which recommends caution in the face of economic growth to control resulting inequalities.
Truss is now suffering the political consequences for ignoring a number of senior Conservatives including Gove while forming the top team. Every policy and the Conservative principles that underpin them will be discussed in public, whether it is on the BBC, conference fringe or the Commons backbenches. The prime minister preside over a party in which just under a third (32%) of MPs backed her during the first round of the leadership race. Truss’ authority is hence far from unimpeachable, leaving plenty of room for an organisationally savvy, perhaps still ambitious backbencher like Gove, to cause problems.
After his victorious showing in the tussle over the “mini-budget”, Gove has already indicated he is not yet willing to back down. Gove stated that Truss was refusing to rule out a real terms decrease in benefits when Parliament returns. Times RadioThis week, he stated that he would not support any attempt to end the inflation-linked benefits. “I would need a lot of persuading to move away from that”, he said.
It is difficult to see how the PM will overcome her party management problems, especially with Gove leading an organised force comprised of resentful MPs from one nation. Few parliamentarians can manipulate the Commons procedure as well as the former chief whip.
So as the battle for the future of conservatism continues, we can expect the Tory troublemaker-in-chief to foment further rebellions in the weeks to come.mi