It is 12 years since the Conservatives entered Downing Street.
First came David Cameron, but many of his Conservative instincts were frustrated by his coalition with the Liberal Democrats. As history records, by the time he won a small majority in 2015, the clock was already ticking on his time in Number 10. Then came Theresa May. Likewise, her instincts were frustrated by her own lack of a parliamentary majority. Then came Boris Johnson. He won a thumping majority, but within weeks his plans came to a grinding halt as Covid-19 spread across the world, instigating one the largest expansions of public spending and state control in living memory.
It could be argued that our three most recent Prime Ministers haven’t acted in a particularly Conservative way.
So as Liz Truss crosses the threshold to begin her premiership, her words ‘I campaigned as a Conservative, and I will govern as a Conservative’ are notable. Given the events that curtailed each of her predecessor’s policy-making authority, it is easy to forget that traditional Conservatives believe that cutting taxes drives economic growth, thus yielding higher revenues to the Exchequer.
There is good evidence that this economic philosophy has merit, but if reports that Truss is preparing a major tax-cutting ‘fiscal intervention’ are to be believed, it is about to be tested.
Liz Truss is as close to a genuine free-marketeer as we have had in Downing Street since Margaret Thatcher. But, as with those who came before her, events will get in the way.
First on her to-do list is easing the concerns – nay, outright fears – of millions of people across the country that they simply cannot afford their energy bills.
Ask any pollster, in every corner of the country people are scared about what will come this winter. If small businesses cannot afford their energy bills, they will close – causing countless job losses and additional burden on the state. If ordinary families cannot afford to heat their homes, then their could be serious social unrest.
Reports are clear that the new Prime Minister is about to make a significant intervention, spending billions of pounds on capping heating costs. This is the right thing to do, but she will fear the additional public debt that is already out of control. Part of her answer to the energy problem is a massive expansion of natural gas extraction from the North Sea. Again, this is logical – but the politics of drilling for more fossil fuels are difficult, and will create an undesirable narrative about her commitment to reaching net zero.
Politics has always been about compromise, but increasingly she will find herself between a rock and a hard place where, in the court of public opinion she will never win universal support.
CLA members perhaps know Liz Truss best as a former DEFRA Secretary. Many may remember her speech at Conservative Party Conference where she expressed her outrage at importing cheese and apples. It is funny to think that her speech earned such mockery and contempt (largely for the manner of her delivery), even though everyone knows she was right to highlight our over-reliance on imports when we should be producing more food ourselves.
She is also known as International Trade Secretary, securing free trade deals with Australia and New Zealand that appeared to ignore the concerns of farmers determined to not be undercut by imported food produced to lower standards – much to the chagrin of the previous DEFRA team.
Her championing of British food as DEFRA secretary does appear to jar with her eagerness to ignore farming concerns in trade policy.
This apparent inconsistency can perhaps be dismissed by saying in each of those jobs she was simply doing her job. But as Prime Minister, she will need to find more consistency in policy-making if she is to gain the trust of the public.
During the leadership campaign I feared that the transition towards ELM would become a political football, forcing the candidates to backtrack from recent progress and put us in some sort of eternal limbo between the EU system of subsidy and the UK proposals for public payment for public goods. This didn’t come to past, and it seems likely that the Environmental Land Management (ELM) rollout will continue on its current trajectory.
For our part, we are already in touch with ministers across the UK Government. The ministers we are working with might have changed, but our ambition for the rural economy has not changed. We will continue to champion ELMs – but hold minister’s feet to the fire in making sure it works for our members. We will continue also to maintain and build upon the successes of our Rural Powerhouse campaign in demanding a robust plan for economic growth in the countryside, ensuring our members can build their businesses in the way they see fit, creating jobs and opportunities, feeding the nation, and strengthening our rural way of life.