Truss rally highlights rift between Sunak and the Tory right

A year to the day since Liz Truss’s first Conservative conference as leader imploded over her ill-fated tax cuts, she was back in front of the party faithful beating the drum for giveaways. “Axe the tax,” she told prime minister Rishi Sunak.

Last October, Truss was under fire from her cabinet, struggling to contain the fallout from her disastrous mini-Budget; on Monday she was the backbench darling of the Tory right.

Her intervention on tax came just 90 minutes before chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s keynote speech and directly challenged his view that the Treasury must prioritise tackling inflation over reducing taxation at present.

The return of the disgraced former leader showcased the increasingly vocal dissent of the Tory right over the government, as Sunak seeks to unify the party ahead of the general election expected next year.

Several hundred activists crammed into an overheated hotel ballroom for the “Great British Growth Rally”, to hear luminaries of the Conservatives’ rightwing, including Dame Priti Patel and Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, speak.

A queue to gain access started snaking around the bar outside an hour before the event began. Prominent Brexiter Nigel Farage, the former leader of Ukip, was among the attendees.

Liz Truss challenged the view that the Treasury must prioritise tackling inflation over reducing taxation © Charlie Bibby/FT

The buzz at the crowded fringe event contrasted with a muted atmosphere and rows of empty seats in the main auditorium, during speeches given by many Cabinet members on Sunday and Monday.

In a jibe directed at Sunak, activists at the growth rally were reminded that Truss had been elected leader by the party membership. The current prime minister was crowned by MPs in an expedited contest that bypassed the grassroots’ vote.

The activists also heard that the number of Tory MPs in Truss’s rightwing Growth Group, set up to promote tax cuts and deregulation, had swelled to 60, the same number as the government’s working majority.

It suggests that the group could threaten to defeat the government — if it acts as a bloc — in any forthcoming rows over legislation, neutering Sunak’s ability to manoeuvre.

The development is likely to give Downing Street pause for thought as it draws up its legislative programme for the next session of parliament, which will be announced in the King’s Speech on November 7.

On Monday, Truss urged Sunak to shrink the state and tear up planning rules to bolster development, alongside her central demand for the government to cut corporation tax to 19 per cent in the Autumn Statement in November.

Leading Brexiter Nigel Farage, the former leader of Ukip, was among the attendees at the Truss event © Charlie Bibby/FT

Rees-Mogg, meanwhile, called for the abolition of inheritance tax, condemning the “horror of death duties” while talking up the idea of a flat rate of income tax, a proposal he acknowledged had been “too radical even for Liz Truss” when in office.

Tariffs and checks on food imports should also be scrapped, the former business secretary suggested. Calling for cheaper food, he said: “I want hormone-injected beef from Australia. I’ve eaten beef in Australia, it was absolutely delicious.”

Patel, former home secretary and longtime favourite of the Tory grassroots, made a string of veiled criticisms of Sunak.

“We cannot be timid any more, we cannot be risk averse and we cannot accept the status quo,” she said, adding: “Politicians in this country are just accepting big government and we cannot have that.”

The New Conservatives, a grouping of rightwing Tory MPs from the 2019 intake who are seeking to carve out their own identity, later hosted a co-ordinated rally.

They announced their own demand for a tax cut, calling for the value added tax threshold to be raised from £85,000 of a business’s turnover to £250,000, while arguing for a ban on the inclusion of “gender ideology” in schools and a reduction in legal migration.

Tom Hunt, one of the group’s members, called for a public vote on quotas of migrants, telling the event: “When you walk into a town centre sometimes it feels like you’re living in a foreign country. I don’t think that makes you a xenophobe.”

Centrist MPs in the One Nation caucus have been at pains to stress their influence over the party as a counterbalance to the volume of the right. Damian Green, chair of the group, told The House magazine that it boasts 80 members, outnumbering the membership of the Growth Group.

Fellow centrist Matt Warman was also due to use a platform at a fringe event on Monday to tell activists: “When we’ve won elections it’s from the centre ground.”

Many MPs described the mood of the conference overall as “flat”. One reflected: “We’ve all been out on the doorstep and things are very tough — that’s true of every part of the country. That’s why the mood isn’t zingy.”

The energy at Truss’s rally, by turns, clearly stood out.

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