Express & Star

Under-fire Liz Truss puts her best foot forward as vultures gather around her

Liz Truss turned her focus to driving growth in the West Midlands as she took time out from the rigours of the Tory Party Conference to visit a local building site.

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Liz Truss and Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng during a visit to a construction site for a medical innovation campus in Birmingham

The PM took the tried-and-tested route of many leaders before her during times of strife: don a hard hat and a high-vis vest and put your best foot forward.

With her administration seemingly crumbling around her just four weeks in, she was probably glad for the change of scenery – and for the chance to ponder how this region is so vital to both the country's fortunes and her own.

In the last fortnight there has been widespread criticism and market turmoil following the Chancellor's mini-budget, prompting a U-turn on one of its key measures.

But even though one of the most heavily slammed measures has been dropped for now, critics are saying the new fiscal direction showed the Tories were returning to being the party of the rich – prompting concerns among some Tory MPs of a major loss of seats at the next general election.

The PM is also facing a Cabinet split and a fresh battle with Tory rebels including Michael Gove and Nadine Dorries – who seem determined to end her tenure in Number 10 before it has really begun.

Despite all this, Ms Truss cut a relaxed figure when meeting reporters at the under-construction Birmingham Health Innovation Centre in Selly Oak.

Asked if her government was turning its back on 'Red Wall' areas such as the Black Country, she told the Express & Star: "The biggest part of the package we announced in the mini-budget was the energy price guarantee, which means that people aren't facing bills of up to £6,000.

"What we're also doing is reducing national insurance and making sure that we're attracting investment into places like Birmingham and Wolverhampton, so there can be more jobs and opportunities.

"It is tough times. We're facing a global economic crisis with rising inflation and rising energy costs, and the British Government needs to respond to that, otherwise we could have been in a situation this winter where businesses would be going out of business because they couldn't afford their bills.

"I absolutely understand people's concerns and worries, but I want to reassure them that we're absolutely on their side and we're doing what we can, first of all to help families in the short term – particularly with the cost of energy – but also by putting in place those long term things that are going to see our areas succeed."

On the subject of her U-turn on scrapping the 45p tax rate for top earners, the PM said the policy had become a "distraction" and that the change of direction showed she had listened to people's concerns.

In what some would consider an extraordinary plea so early in a Prime Minister's administration, she also appeared to call on Conservative MPs to back her policies for growth.

Liz Truss and Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng during a visit to a construction site for a medical innovation campus in Birmingham

Asked what she would say to Tory MPs in the West Midlands who may be at risk of losing their seats, Ms Truss said: "My message to them is we do need to help people through this very difficult winter.

"We've put out a bigger package than any other country in Europe to help people with their fuel bills, which is what the major concern was this summer.

And we need to put in place long term policies that will drive opportunity, higher wages and growth over the next year.

"By taking action now we will be able to get spades in the ground on these projects next year and people will see real improvements.

"It's about making sure we make these improvements now so people can see the results next year and the year after."

A number of those projects she is referring to are in the West Midlands, including the Wednesbury to Brierley Hill Metro extension, the gigafactory in Coventry and a number of rail schemes.

The region is also being considered for investment zones, with sites in the Black Country and Staffordshire lined up.

Ms Truss knows that all eyes will be on whether her government is able to make good on these pledges, particularly after she described the region as being at the forefront of her levelling up plans

"I can tell you I am committed to everything I committed to in the campaign and we'll be making announcements in due course" she told the Star, admitting she was concentrating on more pressing matters for the time being.

She said it was vital to increase economic growth in the West Midlands, which would ultimately lead to "better paid jobs" and "bring more people out of poverty".

After the U-turn on tax, Ms Truss is now under pressure to raise benefit levels.

Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt has publicly backed increasing them in line with inflation so that people can pay their bills, warning that many Tory colleagues have backed such a move in the past.

Prime Minister Liz Truss and Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng [Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire]

The PM said: "On the subject of benefits we have not yet made that decision.

“Of course there will be discussions about the way forward on commitments like benefits.”

She added: "I’m very clear that going into this winter we do need to help the most vulnerable.

“In addition to the energy price guarantee we’ve also made sure the most vulnerable households have an extra £1,200 and this Government will always help people get on in life, whilst making sure the most vulnerable are protected.”

Asked how she could deliver her policy pledges in the face of opposition from a significant cohort of her own MPs, she said: "Well, look at what we've already delivered. We've already delivered the energy price guarantee from October 1st, making sure people aren't facing these huge bills going into winter.

"We've already delivered on reduced stamp duty, helping homeowners. We've already delivered on keeping corporation tax low so we can bring in investment into fantastic cities like Birmingham and we will continue to deliver.

"It's vitally important that we grow the economy. That's what's going to help people get on in life, help people with those high wage jobs that we need to succeed as a country."

Despite her baptism of fire, Ms Truss said she was enjoying being Prime Minister.

"It's a challenging role, it's a challenging time, but what I am focused on is delivering for the British people," she said.

Pressed on whether it is harder than she thought, she said: "I came in with very clear expectations that this was a tough time for our country, but I'm prepared to do what it takes to get us through these difficult times, to get us through this difficult winter and to come out stronger as a country."

Ms Truss, who is due to deliver her keynote conference speech on Wednesday, was joined on her visit by West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, who is bidding to attract investment for top level health centres in the region.

Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng was also knocking about, although he did not take questions from the press.