Conservative Party conference speech could be defining moment for Liz Truss's premiership

Future of under-fire PM could hinge on power of her address to increasingly restless Tories

Liz Truss speaks at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London after being announced as the new Conservative Party leader and prime minister. PA
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British Prime Minister Liz Truss faces a make-or-break week as she delivers her first speech to the Conservative Party conference as prime minister, with many of her MPs furious that her economic plan has triggered market chaos and eroded support.

The radical idea to spur on growth with tax cuts has led to the pound plummeting and government borrowing increasing, with inflation remaining high. It has been followed by a series of U-turns and ill-discipline among colleagues who have broken ranks to complain of the un-Tory nature of the policies, resulting in a disastrous few days in Birmingham.

Some voters now face soaring mortgage payments and the government’s plans have had a significant effect, culminating in a huge slump for the Conservatives in opinion polls.

Despite the criticism, Ms Truss has remained resolute that she chosen the right path and will use the conference to woo MPs, convincing them that her policies will lead to economic growth.

If she fails, then her tenure as prime minister could be one of the shortest in history.

Wednesday will provide an opportunity for Ms Truss to reverse the turbulence of her leadership when she makes the most important speech of her political career.

Exactly four weeks since she stood in Parliament basking in the support of her own MPs at her first Prime Minister’s Questions, she will now be under an unforgiving spotlight, delivering the keynote Conservative Party conference speech.

In effect, after the disastrous mini-budget it will be a “do-or-die” moment, requiring something memorable and with enough strength to reverse her troubling first chapter.

The future of Ms Truss, the Conservative Party and potentially Britain rests on what she says and how she delivers her words in Birmingham at 11am.

The National has spoken to two leading media trainers to understand what is required to ride the crashing wave threatening to engulf her government.

“This is the most important political speech of her life and of a Conservative leader in a very long time,” said Robert Taylor, who has trained several members of Ms Truss’s Cabinet.

“She has just this one chance to make a good impression.”

In the world of news ingested via mobile phone screens, be Ms Truss’s appearance will be of near equal importance to her speech’s content, said Polly Middlehurst, who has also trained current and former Cabinet members.

“It’s always about the optics,” she said. “Whether we like it or not, we are now immersed in a 24/7 culture. The public is judging its politicians chiefly by consuming a series of images, often while they are on the go and often without sound.”

Make Britain Great Again?

Normally, new prime ministers experience a “bounce” in the polls. Ms Truss has done so but a backward one, with the latest surveys suggesting her party is 33 points behind Labour.

But a handful of words can sometimes can work political magic. “Get Brexit Done” led to Boris Johnson winning a thumping 80-seat majority in 2019.

“For the many not the few,” was hugely powerful for Tony Blair. A simple “yes, we can” secured former president Barack Obama’s first term.

Boris Johnson on the general election campaign trail in 2019. Getty

“What does everyone remember about Donald Trump in 2016?” asked Mr Taylor.

“Make America Great Again and what was Hillary Clinton's message? I haven’t got a clue. No one knows and no one can remember.

“I can't tell Liz Truss what that line is, but she's got to come up with something that captures the essence of the issue under consideration today.”

For that, she will need all the help of her aides and speech writers to produce something more refined than the current justification for tax cuts suggesting “instead of redistributing a shrinking pie, we want to grow the pie”.

To succeed, a politician needs “brilliant speech writing, fabulous delivery, capturing the issue of the day and a few well-chosen words”, said Mr Taylor.

“And what Truss needs to do on Wednesday is all four. If she can do that, she might restore some confidence.”

90 per cent optics

In the world of snap social media clips, it’s the optics that count, said Ms Middlehurst, from body language to non-verbal cues and facial expressions.

“It’s right down to the, 'Why is she wearing those earrings again? Doesn’t he realise he’s got dandruff?’,” she said.

“Once a politician understands that, it’s less of shock to learn that the building of a reputation rests on some fairly horrendous figures which shock everyone I train … It’s 70 per cent what you look like, 20 per cent how you sound and 10 per cent what you say. So it's 90 per cent optics.”

Liz Truss speaks to the media during a visit to the Empire State Building in New York. AP

Ms Truss, she insists, needs to make a rapid and major wardrobe change to avoid seeming merely ministerial.

“It’s clear she hasn't made the change, optics-wise, from minister to prime minister. She could be forgiven for using the relatively smart but a little old-fashioned bodycon dresses her stylist has thus far favoured, along with the chunky jewellery, for her previous ministerial duties,” said Ms Middlehurst.

“What she hasn’t done yet is reinvent herself from ministerial to prime ministerial level, heralding her lift in importance. There needs to be a line drawn in the sand, 'that's the old me', to her fully fledged state now as PM.”

Political weather change

Speeches rarely have the impact that their protagonists want. Only three in the last five decades have had the resonance to boost the speaker’s political fortunes, suggested Mr Taylor.

“In my entire lifetime of watching political speeches, I can only remember three that actually changed the political weather, and boy, does Truss need to change the political weather.”

In 1980, with Britain in another financial storm, Margaret Thatcher steadfastly refused to reverse her liberalising economic policies — later known as Thatcherism — by telling conference: “The lady’s not for turning.”

“There was a lot of pressure on her to make a U-turn in that speech but she changed the narrative because people knew she was going to stick with it for good or for ill,” he said.

Margaret Thatcher in 1986 and Liz Truss in 2021. AP

Ms Truss, who idolises Thatcher’s policies, may well seek to repeat that feat.

The late prime minister’s opponent of many years, Labour’s Neil Kinnock, came close to gaining power after he smashed the hard left using his 1985 conference speech to kill off the socialist Militant faction in the party. The Trotskyists had been subverting Labour’s goals, especially in their domination of the Liverpool council.

Mr Kinnock harangued their economic incompetence, which he said led Militant leaders to “hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers”.

David Cameron managed to tweak history with his 2007 performance. Talking without notes, he taunted Gordon Brown, the new Labour prime minister, with the goad: “Why don't you go ahead and call that election. Let the people decide.”

Like Ms Truss, Mr Brown had taken office on his predecessor Mr Blair’s electoral mandate and came very close to calling an election. But his nerve failed and Mr Cameron came to power three years later.

“What united those three speeches, was not just the words or the setting, it was the drama of the moment,” Mr Taylor said.

“In ‘the lady's not for turning’, you could almost hear the respect in the hall. So Liz Truss needs to come up with something special.”

Memory or autocue?

Given the pressure, how should she deliver those words? Mr Cameron’s relaxed style came from his ability to memorise vast tracts to speak without notes. Most politicians use autocue, with the words mounted on screens hidden from public view, and a few use notes.

Unfortunately, Ms Truss has a reputation for “robotic” delivery.

“The tools she's got as a public performer are so terrible that she might struggle,” said Mr Taylor. “She should consider all possible options to deliver this speech in a memorable way.

“If she can get the hang of autocue, take coaching and practise like crazy, then that would be my preferred option because anything else could lead to disaster.”

Ms Truss does come across as “honest” when she speaks publicly, argued Ms Middlehurst.

“She can be a little robotic and unrelatable, parroting sound bites which even a bloke in a pub can spot by a country mile. Truss would do well to be more authentic, after all she's a mum, and I would make more of that, of her two daughters, which would make her supremely relatable.”

Wednesday 8am

With only a few hours to go before the big moment, Ms Middlehurst had some last-minute advice on how best to use the time left.

“Go out for a run in the morning, stretch. Drink a pint of water — your brain is 90 per cent water and sip it over a half of an hour before you go on stage,” she said.

“Rehearse your speech once, then let it go. Then, before you go onstage, have a nip of brandy just to relax the top 10 per cent of your nerves. You'll look good, sound good and people will be able to hear what you have to say.”

Updated: October 05, 2022, 9:27 AM