Like her glass, Liz Truss needs to take a firm grip of the UK’s books and her party - John McLellan

With U-turns, talk of “coups”, a public spat between Cabinet members and an eerily quiet conference centre yesterday morning, expectations for Liz Truss’s keynote speech were not high.

Liz Truss keeps a firm hold of her glass during her speech
Liz Truss keeps a firm hold of her glass during her speech

The rail strike had significantly reduced last day attendance but as the Prime Minster took to the stage, there was a genuine warmth in the ovation from a membership which knew only too well that the Prime Minister is under back-breaking pressure, and whether out of basic human sympathy or not, the room willed her to do well.

Except, that is, for the two or three Greenpeace protestors who managed to obtain seats in prime positions a row behind me, apparently under the guise of guests of one of the conference sponsors.

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There will no doubt be an internal inquest, but the interruption seven minutes into her speech if anything played right into her hands. She handled it calmly and deftly, turning it into a perfect platform for one of her key themes of facing down what she called the “anti-growth coalition” of Labour, Lib Dems, Nationalists and Greens. It’s a line which could stick.

As she patiently waited for the demonstrators to be escorted from the hall, she seamlessly returned to her theme and it seemed to give her strength, and for someone who doesn’t pretend to be an orator the speech was as confidently delivered as anyone could have expected.

It wasn’t flash, but wasn’t designed to be. There were no forced gags or obvious slip-ups, and a sign of her determination to avoid accidents was the careful way she held her glass in two hands to take her first sip of water.

Nor did she shy away from the controversy over the abolition of the top rate of tax, with a remarkable admission it had been a “distraction” and that, “I get it, I listened”. Neither was there any hint of contrition.

He relentless focus on “growth, growth, growth” and the desire to put more money in workers’ pay packets was meat and drink for a Conservative audience, and it went down well; no apologetic hand-wringing here, just a sense of defiance and determination.

She spoke of an “iron grip” on the national finances, and her commitment to bring down debt as a proportion of national income might give flexibility to avoid the severest cuts in public spending if growth can be delivered in the two years she has left.

Her problem remains that tax cuts are only part of the growth agenda and most of the rest relies on legislation and persuading private enterprise to take up the challenge, and that relies on a party discipline which on Tuesday night looked very much like crumbling.

Her address might have gone far in reasserting her authority, and if she can deal with the other “distraction” of breaking the inflation link for benefits then she might just turn things around, at least avoiding the rout being widely predicted at the start of the week.

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Like her glass, she needs to take a firm grip not just of the UK’s books but of the parliamentary party and a delivery programme which ditches the distractions. Further division will be a block on not just the chances of economic recovery but her own.

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