Anyone looking for an indication of just how bad the past few weeks have been for British Prime Minister Liz Truss needed only to watch her keynote speech at the annual Conservative Party conference on Wednesday.
Ms. Truss was just building up momentum in her remarks when two women stood up and unfurled a banner that said, “Who voted for this?” The women, from Greenpeace, were quickly ushered out of the venue and Ms. Truss gamely carried on.
While the activists’ intervention was aimed at Ms. Truss’s decision to lift the ban on fracking in Britain, the question they posed has been asked by many other people in recent days as financial markets roiled and outrage escalated over the new Prime Minister’s tax-slashing policies.
Ms. Truss was hoping to use Wednesday’s speech to kick-start her flailing premiership and heal the divisions that have opened up in the party over her leadership.
“I’m determined to get Britain moving, to get us through the tempest and to put us on a stronger footing as a nation,” she told the conference. Lowering the tax burden was “the right thing to do morally and economically,” she added. “I believe that you know best how to spend your own money, to get on in life and realize your own ambitions.”
Her message has so far proven to be a tough sell. Support for the Conservatives has sunk to lows not seen in 30 years. A YouGov poll of 1,700 voters released on Wednesday found that just 14 per cent of those surveyed had a favourable impression of the Prime Minister compared with 73 per cent who viewed her unfavourably. (The poll was conducted Oct. 1 and 2.)
The opposition Labour Party has opened up a 30-point lead over the Conservatives in some polls and most analysts believe the party, which has held power for 12 years, is likely headed for a massive defeat in the next election, which is due in two years.
“It’s possibly the worst start that any prime minister has had in all of the period for which we have polling records,” said Robert Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester. “She seems very determined to pursue a very economically right-wing approach of low taxes, deregulation and cuts to benefits. And all of the evidence we have on British public opinion is that’s not at all where the average voter is.”
Ms. Truss won the race to succeed Boris Johnson as party leader and prime minister last month by advocating free enterprise, economic growth and less government. But putting some of that into practice has proven much harder than she expected.
Her mini-budget on Sept. 23 spooked investors and sent the value of the pound tumbling because it included a host of tax breaks without a clear plan for how they would be funded. She also refused to have the package analyzed by the Office for Budget Responsibility, an independent government watchdog that traditionally offers an assessment of budget measures.
The financial fallout from the mini-budget was immediate. The value of sterling sank to a record low while yields on government bonds increased sharply. Mortgage rates, which are tied to bond yields, also rose and suddenly millions of homebuyers saw their monthly payments jump by the equivalent of $200 or more.
The turmoil sparked a wave of criticism from economists, the International Monetary Fund and credit rating agencies. Tory MPs also felt the wrath of angry constituents and pushed Ms. Truss to backtrack.
She finally relented last Monday and scrapped a mini-budget proposal to cut the top tax rate to 40 per cent from 45 per cent. That had become a lightning rod for critics who accused Ms. Truss of helping the wealthy while the rest of the country faced soaring costs for energy and other essentials.
The outcry didn’t end there. Ms. Truss quickly faced more criticism from colleagues this week after she refused to honour a promise made by Mr. Johnson that the government would increase welfare benefits in line with inflation. Ms. Truss repeatedly said she hadn’t made a decision on the matter even though a growing number of MPs and one cabinet minister said it would be heartless, and politically toxic, not to help the poorest people cope with rising inflation.
Things got so bad for Ms. Truss during the conference that one senior Tory MP, Nadine Dorries, said the Prime Minister’s agenda was such an abrupt change from Mr. Johnson’s that she should call an election and seek a mandate from the people.
Rebuilding confidence among colleagues and the public won’t be easy, experts say.
“Liz Truss faces the political equivalent of climbing Mount Everest,” said Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor at the University of Kent. “The Conservative Party’s share of the vote has collapsed in the polls and her ratings are already lower than Boris Johnson’s at the worst moments in his premiership.”
He added that it was “difficult if not impossible to see how she turns the ship around and goes on to win the next general election.”
Dr. Ford at Manchester said she might not even get a chance to fight the next election as leader. The Conservatives have a history of removing unpopular leaders – as they did with Mr. Johnson and his predecessor Theresa May. “If the polling is as bad as it is now come next spring, I really wouldn’t be wanting to put much money on her survival,” he said.