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LONDON — In six short weeks, Liz Truss has succeeded in angering all wings of her party. Most now agree she can’t fight the next election.
Britain’s latest prime minister, who won a Tory leadership contest with promises of tax cuts and “growth, growth, growth,” by Friday had driven supporters on the Tory right to send furious WhatsApp messages bemoaning her latest U-turn on corporation tax as more of her planned budget crumbled.
“I’ve never known the atmosphere to be as febrile as it is at the moment,” one veteran Tory MP who backed Truss in the leadership contest said. Another MP who supported her said: “It feels like the end. I think she’ll be gone next week.”
Tory MPs began casting around wildly for mechanisms to oust Truss and candidates to replace her. While party rules make that complicated, rules can be changed and Truss’ removal is fast becoming a question of when, not if. Her only strength at this point, insiders say, is that there is no obvious successor.
With markets showing little signs of being placated by the prime minister’s decision to sack her friend and Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, the latest in a series of steps that have tried and failed to calm the turmoil in the three weeks since her budget was announced, there were whispers that some of her former leadership rivals were testing their level of support should they decide to mount a challenge.
A tense, hastily-arranged press conference in which Truss took just four questions and left after 10 minutes did nothing to improve the mood. Her weakness was underlined by the appointment of Jeremy Hunt to the Treasury, a veteran Cabinet minister of the Cameron and May years who backed her rival Rishi Sunak. Steve Brine, an ally of Hunt’s, told the BBC that while Truss would be the “chairman” Hunt would be the government’s “chief executive.”
Craig Mackinlay, a Tory backbencher, messaged colleagues saying of Kwarteng’s departure: “This is a double U-turn with the handbrake on. Never U-turn. Others will smell the blood in the water knowing they can take bites out of your backside & dictate the agenda. No, No, No!”
Tory WhatsApp groups descended into open warfare. One MP messaged colleagues urging them to “show backbone” and claimed the maelstrom had been an invention of the press. A colleague responded to say they were “living in a fantasy world.”
Thérèse Coffey, the deputy prime minister and Truss’ closest ally, held a call with a supportive group of Tory MPs in an attempt to calm the waters at 2:15 p.m. and a second call with to which all Tory MPs were invited later in the afternoon. One attendee at the first meeting said she appeared “emotional” and “very down”.
Andrew Griffith, a Treasury minister, spoke in support of Truss on the 2:15 p.m call and told colleagues that asset managers were “pumped” by the government’s policies, according to one MP present.
Another MP, asked if she had done enough to steady the ship, replied: “Ship’s fine. It’s the crew!”
How badly can we lose?
Truss’ most strident critics now argue that removing her is a matter of national rather than political interest — they are resigned to losing the next election but view her premiership as a threat to the U.K. economy.
Some Tory rebels believe there is nothing Truss can do to regain the confidence of the markets. “They want to know that the government understands its parliamentary party and the two are aligned rather than constantly in battle,” one former Cabinet minister said. “Otherwise, why do you trust anything the government says publicly?”
For many MPs, it’s also a question of limiting the damage done to the Tory brand. “A bunch of libertarian entryists have taken over the Tory party,” one rebel MP said. “It’s our Corbyn problem. We now have a choice between landslide and annihilation. You can’t destroy the economy and our reputation for economic competence and expect anything less.”
Truss’ biggest flaw has been her rigidity. She has insisted that the market reaction to her mini-budget was the result of a communication failure rather than a policy error. Her decision to stick to that line and refusal to admit fault at a meeting Wednesday with the organizing group for backbench Tory MPs, the 1922 committee, infuriated MPs.
One well-connected Tory strategist said the prime minister was unfazed by the dire polls. “She doesn’t care about the polling. She says something to the effect of ‘we’re not populists, we need to do what’s right.’ She just doesn’t accept that she needs people to buy into her plans.”
A group of Tory MPs have settled on the idea of a joint ticket of Penny Mordaunt and Rishi Sunak to take over from Truss. “Rishi and Penny got over two-thirds of the parliamentary party between them on the final MPs ballot,” one Tory rebel organizer said. “You have a critical mass already backing them.”
In a message leaked to POLITICO, Crispin Blunt told colleagues in a Tory backbench WhatsApp group on Friday afternoon: “Enough. Emergency repair needed for our party and our country. Step forward Rishi and Penny, with our support and encouragement in the interests of us all.”
But it is unlikely that other leadership hopefuls will be content to give the pair a free run.
Ousting Truss this year would make her the shortest-serving prime minister in British history.
But orchestrating her exit is easier said than done. One mechanism under discussion is changing party rules to allow for Truss to be challenged — ordinarily she is immune for the first year of her premiership — and for Tory MPs to choose her successor without a vote by the grassroots membership.
One member of the 1922 committee executive, which oversees leadership rules, said no change had been discussed and that none was currently anticipated.
Another mechanism being mooted in some quarters is getting a majority of Tory MPs to agree on her replacement and installing the new prime minister via a majority vote in the Commons. Such a move might be technically possible but would drag the King into a constitutional row, with opposition parties demanding an election if Truss cannot command a parliamentary majority.
And getting all Tory MPs to agree on a candidate would be no easy feat, particularly at a time when the party is so viciously divided.
Truss’ defenders are strident in their criticism of those plotting to get rid of her. A Tory MP who backs Truss said “a lot of people are getting really rather overexcited.”
“The wild talk about replacing her as a unity candidate at this particular stage is not going to go down very well,” the MP said. “Colleagues who do this sort of thing ought to start to think about the impression that they give to their own associations. The Conservative Party doesn’t like what it perceives as disloyalty.”
When former Prime Minister Boris Johnson won an 80-seat majority — which has now been whittled down to 69 seats — the general assumption was that the Tories would govern for at least two terms.
The electoral challenge facing Labour — winning back enough seats in the north and in Scotland while also gaining ground in the south — was seen as too great. But Tory MPs point out that on current polling figures, those calculations are blown out of the water.
Both the Labour leader Keir Starmer and the Liberal Democrat leader called for a general election to be triggered on Friday. If Labour’s current lead in the polls were to be replicated in an election, the party would win more than 400 seats, dwarfing even Tony Blair’s landslide 1997 victory.
Labour’s lead will almost certainly narrow when an election comes. But many Tory MPs believe the damage of the past months will take a long time to repair — and that Labour is certain to win the next election as a result.
“We don’t know whether it goes on for three months, six months, or another year,” said a former Cabinet minister, “but the thing is bust.”