Harold Wilson famously commented that “a week is a long time in politics”. Nowadays a week is an eternity. Here at the Labour conference the mood is buoyed but cautions following the less than warm response from the markets to the “fiscal event” unveiled by Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng on Friday.
Kwarteng and Prime Minister Truss must be disappointed that what they clearly felt was a political masterstroke, dragging the debate to the right of centre around fiscal policy while framing Labour as the party of tax rises has been so poorly received. But few independent observers agreed with the Conservative spin that the mini budget would with a single bound, unleash decades worth of pent-up entrepreneurial spirit. And then sterling tanked and continued to tank over the course of the weekend at one point reaching it’s lowest ever value against the dollar at $1.03 and sparking the likelihood of a steep rise in interest rates by the Bank of England probably before its next scheduled meeting. Rachel Reeves, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, used her speech yesterday morning to accuse Kwarteng of “fanning the flames” of the pound’s fall while rumours abounded that letters are already going into the Chair of the 1922 Committee calling for a confidence vote in Liz Truss.
So, what does it mean for Labour? Well, their conference couldn’t have come at a better time. There are relatively few times when the opposition can lead the political agenda and conference is one of them. Rachel Reeves yesterday and Sir Keir Starmer this afternoon will be high on the news running order. Obscured perhaps by the scale of the economic problems battering the Conservatives but, I suspect, they won’t mind that so much. The real question is whether Labour can present themselves as a credible alternative to the Conservatives. They will need to present an robust economic strategy that addresses the pressures on household budgets and which will give business the confidence and stability they need to thrive.
Starmer said last year that he wanted to fight the General Election on the economy and productivity which is why motions calling for proportional representation, which are complicated and which voters don’t easily understand, got short shrift on the conference floor. Liz Truss also wanted clear dividing lines between the parties but perhaps not like this. Labour will seek to hammer home the idea that cutting tax for the well off and reversing corporation tax rises in the middle of an economic emergency means the Tories are not on the side of working people. Labour tried this before in 2015 under Ed Miliband but this time it’s different with family budgets feeling the strain with higher energy and food bills and mortgage repayments.
Regardless, all eyes will be on Liz Truss at Conservative conference next week who not only has to reassure her MPs (the majority of whom didn’t support her), but also the country at large as well as the international money markets. It will need to be the speech of her life.