It’s Groundhog Day for the Conservatives. Once again, the party of government is faced with the prospect of ousting their incumbent leader, just weeks after removing her predecessor.
It has been a torrid time for the Prime Minister. Now only three weeks after the mini-Budget that was meant to galvanise the nation and unleash a fountain of repressed growth, it is dead in the water. The additional rate tax cut is gone; the reversal in the corporation tax hike has itself been reversed; the energy package will no longer last two years as pledged but will be reviewed in April; the basic rate income tax has been shelved indefinitely; and public spending cuts, that as late as Wednesday the Prime Minister said were improbable, are now certain to happen. Trussonomics is dead and buried.
This saga has reignited a fire of dissent within the parliamentary Tory party, that even the most pessimistic thought had been extinguished for the short-term at least. There are now three defining views within the Conservative Party – views that are so incompatible with one another, they leave no coherent agreement on a direction forward.
This tribe of Tory MPs have been pessimistic about a Truss administration from the early days of the leadership campaign. Serial rebel Andrew Bridgen, who has sought to oust every Tory leader of the last decade, is a notable member. In the view of this group, Liz Truss has lost the economic argument, trashed the economy and should be removed from office without delay. Consider Crispin Blunt MP who told Andrew Neil, “the game is up”. Though the rules of the 1922 committee of backbench MPs protects the Prime Minister from a confidence vote until September next year, they stress the rules can be amended and that the will of the party will find a way to be enacted – “water will find its way downhill”, says George Osbourne.
Though unlike Boris Johnson, Liz Truss has no firm set of diehard supporters, there is a second group in the party who firmly believe in Trussonomics – if there now remains such a notion. Liz Truss was their messiah candidate, promising the tax cuts, reforms and upending of the “Treasury Orthodoxy” they have lamented against for years. Her plan, they argue, was tarnished by a vengeful media and for the most part, they blame the Bank of England for the economic turmoil of-late. Sir John Redwood, a backer of Truss from the start tweeted, “Those who want the PM out […] are playing political games at the expense of people’s lives and hopes.” Sir John has argued against Jeremy Hunt’s tax rises saying, “you cannot tax your way to growth”.
The fence sitters
A third group sit somewhere in the middle. They view the Prime Minister as weakened having acted too far and too fast in a mini-Budget that has shattered the widely respected view of Tory economic competence. Exponents of this tribe, including former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, argue the prime minister can reset by reshuffling the cabinet to include a wider “group of talents” (a euphemism for supporters of Rishi Sunak). Though in actuality this group would likely welcome a change in leader, despite an outward presentation of loyalty to Liz Truss.
Over the coming days and weeks these tribes will fight for control over the direction of the Conservative Party. It will be a political Game of Thrones, set to be more brutal, more complicated and more devastating than the battles that came before it. If the rebels are successful in ousting Liz Truss, she will become the shortest serving Prime Minister in British history. To find the current bearer of that title you’d have to trace history back nearly two centuries. George Canning served 118 days as the nation’s chief executive in 1827 – and he died in office.
Liz Truss must be aching to survive, if only to avoid the humiliation of becoming the shortest serving and poorest performing Prime Minister in British history. Will she survive and which tribe might come out on top? As she might say…the jury’s out.