Liz Truss’ press conference performance last Friday had the air of a disgruntled employee working out their notice in a job that was never for them.
Terse and evasive, her blank stare resembled a zoned out manager who had reached the end of their tenure. Taking just four questions from a room full of journalists – and answering none properly – failed to match the seriousness of the moment.
And don’t forget, this was the moment when her economic policy fell apart, less than a month after its unveling. She announced it without contrition, suggesting that the markets weren’t ready for her Growth Plan.
It plumbed new depths for a format that too many treat as an opportunity to ‘get their message out’ rather than properly engage the media on nationally significant events. Listening on the radio, journalists’ exasperation when Truss left the room after eight minutes was palpable. I shared their bewilderment watching it again afterwards.
This highlights a long-running issue with spin that I’ve banged on about for years. But they’re not even spinning a line any more. They’ve stopped answering questions and left us staring at an empty podium wondering what the hell just happened.
Here are a few moments which hopefully illustrate my point.
#1: It was always going to be tough
Ministers are right to say challenging economic times lie ahead. Interest rates are rising everywhere, and inflation brings added pressures which hit everyone’s incomes.
Knowing this, they pressed ahead with unfunded tax cuts anyway. The ‘challenging conditions’ line only came out when things started going wrong after the mini budget.
Others pointed out the stupidity of this. It’s heaped further stress on an economy already under pressure.
#2: The ‘this is why…’ technique
‘This is why…’ sits in almost every statement I’ve heard from government representatives in recent weeks. It’s used to set out a challenge, before highlighting a minister’s action to address it. Note that it is always me, not we or the team, acting decisively when this phrase is used.
Truss deployed this when saying that her priority was economic stability, adding this is why she acted decisively [to sack her chancellor and reverse ferret on Corporation Tax cuts].
Using it to frame a response to a crisis the government created sounded ridiculous. It tested a hackneyed technique to breaking point.
#3: Holding the line (no matter what)
Fair questions about the mini budget’s impact on inflation and interest rates met a line about the government’s energy price freeze.
The energy measures are a huge intervention, it’s true. Hang on, what was the question again? Often, Truss isn’t even trying to move the question onto more comfortable terrain. She’s ignoring it altogether and saying what she wants to say. It happened again and again on the disastrous BBC local radio interviews recently.
Every time ministers fail to acknowledge the carnage the not-so mini budget unleased when asked about it, a little more trust slips away.
#4: The ‘lived experience’ line
Truss opened Friday’s press conference with a line on her early-life experience of places that hadn’t seen growth. It’s not the first time she’s mentioned this, but others who grew up where she did in Roundhay, Leeds, question its accuracy.
Personal stories that are questionable or untrue won’t land with the public. This one also upset lots of people from Leeds, who say she’s misappropriating the city to serve her pro-growth agenda.
Time for spin to stop
Working in government is tough. It’s fast-moving and unforgiving. You need thick skin and staying power to survive at the top. Integrity, empathy and honesty matter too.
Friday’s disaster is an unwelcome step along a path followed by too many since I started working in newspapers in the 1990s.
Spin has spiralled out of control. ‘Holding the line’ has hardened into a post truth mindset that’s damaging democracy. This thinking urges ministers to stick to the line, no matter what the question. It dodges any hint of uncertainty. It typecasts those who ask questions as opponents (see members of the ‘anti growth coalition’). And it never, ever, says sorry, even when evidence of culpability screams at them and everyone else.
This matters because over time it destroys trust and legitimacy on which all institutions depend. It damages livelihoods and harms our standing in the world. It hurts.
The public is no longer buying it. Pollsters predict wipe-out for the Tories at the next election, leading MPs to conclude that the game is up for them. In failing to take seriously the public yearning for leadership with integrity, they are complicit in this disaster. Maybe we all are.
It’s a good time to reflect on this as we consider how to put the pieces of this mess together.
Campaign slogans alone won’t stick
I’ll say something brief about Labour here, as I’m not encouraged by their negative ad campaigns responding to these challenges either.
The opposition should be careful with its messaging. When (not if) Labour takes office, it inherits a mess. The party must demonstrate readiness for what’s coming in a way that goes beyond bashing the government. It needs to set out a vision for the future, with detail on how government would move through this crisis.
This needs a different approach, rooted in evidence, long-term thinking and willingness to admit mistakes.
This sounds unrealistic, I know. But many decent comms people work with clients and colleagues to do this every day. I find it painful to see it so clearly lacking from the Number 10 machine.
I reconcile myself knowing that a shameful period of government is surely coming to an end. The post-truth mindset that infects it needs casting out too.