Liz Truss does not have a reputation for political brilliance.
The MP for South West Norfolk is most famous for the viral videos of her getting passionate about pork markets and dairy products while environment secretary: “We import two thirds of our cheese. That. Is. A. Disgrace.” – still a regular clip on Have I Got news For You?
Since being shuffled to chief Treasury secretary, she has mostly stayed out of the headlines.
But on Wednesday, at the Investing in Britain Forum, Truss relaunched herself. With her speech on Britain’s future economic success, she presented the kind of bold, forward-thinking vision that the Tories have been tiptoeing around since David Cameron resigned.
To start with, take her unequivocal defence of small government, enterprise, and capitalism.
The premise of capitalism is that companies that provide desired goods and services at competitive prices will succeed, while those that don’t will fail. This spurs competition, and cheaper, better products for everyone.
Of course, politically, this can be hard to stomach, especially when big failures amount to mass job losses. In a week that has seen two of Britain’s major high street chains collapse, activists, lobbyists and Labour politicians have been baying for the government to step in and save jobs.
Against such a backdrop, MPs might be tempted to fudge the issue. Not Truss.
We should, she said, when discussing Labour’s plan for “a state on steroids” and nationalisation of key industries, resist any urge to “resuscitate lumbering zombie companies, long past their best”.
That’s a bold but important argument to make. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s offer of extreme state control has been growing more popular with the public – 83 per cent of whom support nationalising industries like electricity and water, according to a September survey by the Legatum Institute.
But instead of fighting back against anti-market rhetoric, leading Conservatives seem to view the issue as toxic. May’s team in particular has leaned more towards statism (her 2017 election manifesto stated: “we do not believe in untrammelled free markets”) than towards explaining how and why markets, for the most part, work to people’s benefit.
In doing so, they have missed out on a crucial opportunity to justify their position, and to win over voters under 40 who have lost faith in the system.
Since the surge of support for Corbyn, there has been mass panic over the rising average age of Conservative voters and Labour’s apparent ability to speak to millennials, while people are at last considering the social and economic implications of a generation who rent rather than own and who feel a lack of capital counts them out of the capitalist club.
Despite this, the government has repeatedly failed to take housing inequality seriously beyond offering demand-side reforms.
It is little wonder that millennials, frustrated by such half measures and slow progress, are not keen to buy into capitalist ideology.
It doesn’t help that they are repeatedly slammed in the press for being vapid, lazy, and soft, which downplays the very real – and very new – challenges this cohort faces.
Again, Truss was happy to go against conventional opinion, saying “I have found this generation to be one of the most independently-minded, enterprising and anti-establishment of our times”, and extolling their virtues as entrepreneurs and disruptors.
And as if defending both capitalism and the “selfie and avocado” generation wasn’t controversial enough, she had actual solutions to help young people beyond giving them a railcard: relaxing planning laws, building more houses, and confronting the nimbyism that has grotesquely distorted the property market.
This is radical stuff, stunning both in how obviously logical it is (if you want young people to change their minds on capitalism, confront vested interests and show them how the system can work for them), and conversely in how rarely we hear it said, even from what is meant to be the party of enterprise.
At the end of her speech, Truss railed against “the Blob” of lobbyists, special interest groups, bureaucrats and rent-seekers – the enemies of a free market system. She set out how trade unions and over-regulation create barriers for young job-seekers and restrict economic freedom. And she was convincing.
This is the most unapologetically free market rhetoric we have heard from a leading Conservative since May became Prime Minister. Truss wasn’t an establishment surrogate defending the status quo – she was passionately making the case for a fair, free, and profoundly progressive future.
It’s an argument the Tories should have been making going into the last election, and every day since then. They will never be able to compete with Corbyn on things like scrapping student debt and promising to let renters keep pets.
Instead, they need to fix (where possible) what’s broken with the market system, and learn how to explain from scratch that this is the surest and most effective way to increase prosperity, for everyone.
In short, they need to listen to Liz Truss.