Liz Truss has not been prime minister for a month but her days in Number 10 already look numbered as calls for a general election intensify.
The PM’s authority is immediately weakened by the major U-turn over scrapping the top rate of tax and disgruntled Conservative backbench MPs are smelling blood.
Despite the size of the government’s majority – currently in the mid 60s – Truss backtraced in the under the first wave of concerted pressure. Her buckling on the top-rate tax cut has emboldened backbenchers.
Truss and her chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s crashed the UK economy and sent the pound plummeting to its lowest ever level against the dollar with only their second act in government (having announced the new energy price cap). Only a £65 billion intervention by the Bank of England – to bolster the pound and protect pensions – prevented a complete economic collapse.
The only thing falling faster than the markets was the Conservatives’ standings in the polls. Labour had taken a 33 point lead in one – released just before the Tory party conference. And more worryingly for the leader, Truss has polled even lower than Boris Johnson just before her disgraced predecessor was finally ousted from No 10 after a series of scandals.
The worst thing for Tories about this current crisis is that it is yet another one created by the Conservative government. Truss already had more than enough on her plate – think crises in health, social care, law and order, the environment, Ukraine, the multiple strikes, the cost of living crisis, inflation, energy prices, rising interest rates, etc, etc – yet somehow she has managed so rapidly to heap even more on top of it all. And so much of it is completely unnecessary.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Truss declared she was prepared to be an unpopular prime minister in an attempt to signal her strength and iron-will. On Sunday morning, Truss repeated her resolute backing for the top-rate tax cut, reiterating her commitment to the policy in a TV interview (only days after a disastrous round of regional media interviews). The tax cut was right, she said. The lady was not for turning.
Then, that very same day, Michael Gove did his tour of the media studios – the first day of the Conservative party conference in Birmingham – telling anyone with a microphone he could not support scrapping the 45p tax band. To make the rich even richer through borrowing is “unConservative”, said Gove, straight-faced while denying he was a “rebel leader”, insisting he was a mere backbencher.
Other backbenchers took note and followed Gove’s example, voicing their concerns about the government’s direction. Alarmed at the polls and their political futures, MPs conveyed their discomfort to Number 10. By early Monday morning it became clear the lady is very much for turning with Kwarteng on air to announce the top rate 45p tax band will now, not be scrapped.
And now even cabinet ministers are coming forward to state their position and what they are – or are – not willing to support. Penny Mordaunt, the Leader of the House stepped forth on Tuesday (October 4) to declare she won’t back a benefits freeze despite reports Truss and Kwarteng are planning to do exactly that to try and fund some of their tax cuts. More MPs are following suit, emboldened by the tail’s clear ability to wag the dog.
Truss has no mandate, even her own MPs argue, other than the majority she inherited from the ignominious Boris Johnson. That came on the back of the 2019 Conservative manifesto and that promised to keep benefits and pensions in line with inflation. Truss has pledged to keep the pension triple lock but has steadfastly refused give the same commitment to benefits, to the (increasingly public) disgruntlement of many Tory MPs.
These same MPs didn’t object too much to Johnson’s myriad U-turns and breaking of manifesto promises. Not for as long as he remained an electoral asset. But Truss is not an asset for anyone other than her right-wing Tufton Street backers and around two-thirds of Tory MPs didn’t back her in the leadership race anyway. By /appointing only supporters and loyalists to her team Truss has alienated them further.
Many Tory MPs have stayed away from the party’s four day conference. Those that are there face two choices according to Tim Montgomerie, the founder of the ConservativeHome website: be dead or be considered a joke. Keep Truss and face annihilation at the polls. Get rid of her and plunge the country back into the palaver of another Tory leadership campaign, featuring candidates tearing each other apart to the hilarity of onlookers.
Except it isn’t funny. It certainly wasn’t under Johnson whose “humorous” antics helped him get away with so much. He did more than anyone to turn the UK into a laughing stock, causing inestimable damage to Britain’s international standing and reputation.
The prime minister needs to rebuild it. Truss’s speech to conference tomorrow is already make or break for the prime minister.