'It's not upbeat': UK's Tory conference reels from U-turn

'It's not upbeat': UK's Tory conference reels from U-turn

Protestor Steve Bray rallies opposition on the second day of the ruling Conservative Party conference, as party activists reel from a major tax policy U-turn
Protestor Steve Bray rallies opposition on the second day of the ruling Conservative Party conference, as party activists reel from a major tax policy U-turn. Photo: Paul ELLIS / AFP
Source: AFP

Protesters outside the British Conservative party's annual conference added an air of musical farce after the new government's signature economic policy was left in tatters Monday.

Once they had got past the amplifier-fed rendition of the comedy theme tune from "The Benny Hill Show", a global TV hit from the 1970s, many delegates inside were aghast at the turn of events.

Sarah Smith, 47, a Tory councillor from southern England, said she had been coming to the conference for "many, many years".

"It's definitely not upbeat this time. It feels more nervous than any other conference I've been at," Smith told AFP.

Activist nerves were on edge after Prime Minister Liz Truss and her finance minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, abruptly reversed course on their plan to slash taxes for Britain's highest earners.

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Rishi Sunak, Truss's defeated rival for the party leadership, and her scandal-tainted predecessor Boris Johnson are among many senior MPs staying away from the conference in Birmingham.

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That had left the stage clear for Truss to stamp her authority on the party -- or to squirm in the spotlight of a public-relations mess less than a month into her premiership.

"I wasn't impressed at all at the U-turn. We do have leadership issues," London Tory activist Sapna Chadha, 49, said.

"Who announces something like this and then reverses course overnight? You'd never get away with that in business," she said.

The Truss-Kwarteng plan, which was heavy on right-wing policy prescriptions to fix the UK economy, had encountered stiff resistance on financial markets and deep dislike among voters.

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The lady is for turning

After sticking by the plan for days, even up to Sunday morning, Truss sent Kwarteng out for a painful round of media interviews early Monday to justify dropping the top-rate tax cut.

Some delegates said they had panicked.

Helen Mayer, 50, described herself as a free-market libertarian and said her WhatsApp group of likeminded activists "feel it could have been defended".

"They feel this has been forced by disgruntled MPs who supported Rishi Sunak," she said.

"I want to hear Liz plough on with ideas for growth. I want to see an end to things like net zero, which will just bankrupt us."

A delegate's socks carry the message 'Baahh Humbug!" -- a reference to Charles Dickens' character Ebenezer Scrooge -- as Conservative conference-goers make their feelings known
A delegate's socks carry the message 'Baahh Humbug!" -- a reference to Charles Dickens' character Ebenezer Scrooge -- as Conservative conference-goers make their feelings known. Photo: Oli SCARFF / AFP
Source: AFP

Truss is due to close the conference on Wednesday, 22 years after her Tory predecessor Margaret Thatcher declared "the lady's not for turning" on her own economic platform.

By her own admission, today's prime minister is not the slickest speaker. In 2014, Truss gave a bizarre turn to the conference as environment minister, talking up the merits of UK pork and cheese.

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Graham Burgess, another Tory councillor, backed Sunak in the leadership race after grassroots favourite Penny Mordaunt was rejected by Tory MPs in initial rounds of voting.

"It's very bumpy, I must admit," he said of the conference, amid mutterings that Truss could face her own leadership challenge before long.

"We want someone who is good at the (parliamentary) despatch box, who commands authority, who can speak with authority and get the message over to the general public," Burgess added.

"I believe Penny Mordaunt could do that. I believe Rishi could do that. Boris could do it in spades.

"So the next few months are going to be very, very interesting."

Source: AFP

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