It was clear on Sunday night, even as Truss addressed a private reception at her Conservative Party’s annual conference in Birmingham, that the tax cut simply didn’t have enough support from her own Members of Parliament. That meant her finance minister’s mini-budget, which also included measures to help people pay energy bills, was very unlikely to survive a vote in the House of Commons.
Dissent is rarely on display so soon after a new leader takes over a political party. But at this private event on Sunday night, organized by the influential website ConservativeHome, CNN saw several prominent Conservatives – including cabinet ministers – gossiping and rolling their eyes as Truss spoke to a packed room, defending the tax cut that was just hours away from being axed.
On Tuesday, Truss’ enemies turned their focus on forcing her to commit to a pledge made under the last prime minister, Boris Johnson, to raise welfare payments in line with inflation. At the time of writing, the government insists that it won’t buckle a second time, though one of Truss’ own ministers has supported doing so in a radio interview.
Allies and enemies take different views on the merits of tax cuts but all agree on one thing: The messaging around both the policy and the U-turn has been poor.
“I wouldn’t have done it in the first place, but dropping a flagship policy during our conference after insisting it would stay, then blaming everyone else, makes us look completely untrustworthy,” said one so-called “Red Wall” Conservative, a term referring to seats in northern England that traditionally vote Labour but backed Boris Johnson at the last election.
Kwarteng had to address the party faithful from the conference stage on Monday. He gave a short, defensive speech in which he called the tax cut a “distraction” – a term that had clearly become the official party line after the policy was dropped, given the number of ministers using it.
Kwarteng and his party were keen to let Britons know that “we get it” and “we need to move forward.” It may be slightly harder for Truss to simply wash her hands of this PR nightmare.
At the time of publication, CNN understands that her advisers are planning for her Wednesday speech to include a short and concise explanation for what happened and why, though probably stopping short of an apology.
They are eager to hammer home the fact that the UK has pledged to cap household and business energy bills, costing the government potentially billions of pounds.
“Haven’t we pledged enough already on energy?” a senior adviser to Truss told CNN.
That may not be enough. Many in Birmingham were dismayed by how defensive Kwarteng’s speech was and how little it revealed.
One senior Conservative said Truss will need to “show us something that gives us hope we stand a chance of winning the next election.”
It has not yet been decided whether she plans to pull any rabbits from hats on Wednesday. Many of her MPs would like to see some big-ticket policies on investment in deprived areas or national infrastructure, the kinds of policies Johnson was wont to reveal in similar forums, according to her advisers.
However, Truss’ pitch to be leader was as a tax-cutting, small-state Conservative. A senior adviser to the prime minister told CNN on Tuesday morning that such big-ticket policies would not be her style and unless they were sincerely “game-changing” would look “desperate” and “cynical.”
Further to this, Conservatives from across the party say that even if Truss wanted to make a big spending pledge, it would be incompatible with the economic picture she and her ministers have painted.
Which leaves Truss somewhere between a rock and a hard place come midday in Birmingham on Wednesday. The leader’s speech at the party conference is a focal point in the political calendar. It is a chance for the government to boast about its record and rally the troops for the 12 months ahead.