Snap verdict: Truss’s first PMQs was no triumph – but she avoided catastrophe | PMQs

Every former prime minister says taking PMQs is the most scary ordeal of the week, and even after 10 years in post, people such as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair regarded it as one of the ultimate challenges of the job – an encounter when a few wrong words could spell disaster.

For any new prime minister, the first question is: are they up to it? And Liz Truss clearly is. She looked like a prime minister, she performed reasonably well, and she even managed a decent joke (on Labor leaders and north London) It was not a triumph, but it was not a catastrophe either, and on day one that is a bonus.

Truss marks a very welcome change from Boris Johnson in that for the most part she was willing to answer questions and engage in an argument about policy and ideas. This, of course, is what is meant to happen. But for the last three years we have been governed by a prime minister much more interested in politics as performance and entertainment, and so it is refreshing to tilt back to ideas.

But that is where the encounter was less positive for Truss. She won the Conservative leadership contest on a low-tax, small-state agenda that put her well to the right of any Tory leader for a generation. Truss has always been a libertarian (it’s why she joined the Liberal Democrats at university), but during the summer it was never entirely clear to what extent she was just pandering to her party’s cruder, Thatcherite instincts. But now we know, it’s worse than that (to quote an old Westminster joke) – she really does believe it.

Starmer exposed this clearly with questions that illuminated what may become the key dividing line in British politics. Truss has already shifted on to Labor territory by conceding the need for a price cap of some sort on energy bills. But while Labor is proposing to fund this through a windfall tax, Truss is resisting this, and she dug in firmly on this point, declaring categorically that a windfall tax would be wrong. Starmer said this was prioritizing the interests of an industry making £170bn in profits and that as a result she was going for “more borrowing than is needed”, with taxpayers paying the price for years to come.

Maybe you can win a general election on this sort of purist, ideological Laffer curve worship. But it seems extremely unlikely. Some Tories such as Rishi Sunak believe the claim that tax cuts alone will always promote growth is nonsense, and even figures in the energy industry are finding it hard to justify their excessive profits. Starmer did not put on a particularly flashy performance, but he sounded much closer to where the public opinion is on these issues, and ultimately that is what matters.

Truss also had no convincing answer to the question posed to her by several MPs: how could people trust her to sort out the nation’s problems when she had been in government for the past 10 years? (Johnson did not have this problem, because he was out of parliament for most of the David Cameron was and he resigned from Theresa May’s government.) Starmer summed this all up in her final question. He said:

The prime minister claims to be breaking orthodoxy but the reality is she’s reheating George Osborne’s failed corporation tax plans – protecting oil and gas profits and forcing working people to pay the bill.

She’s the fourth Tory prime minister in six years. Her face at the top may change but the story remains the same.

There’s nothing new about the Tory fantasy of trickle-down economics, nothing new about this Tory prime minister who nodded through every decision that got us into this mess and now says how terrible it is. And can’t she see there’s nothing new about a Tory prime minister who, when asked who pays, says ‘it’s you, the working people of Britain’?

In response, Truss said there was “nothing new about a Labor leader who is calling for more tax rises”, and that Starmer was just offering “the same old tax and spend”. It demonstrated that she can think on her feet, but that wo n’t help much if voters conclude that what Starmer is saying makes more sense.

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