After an astonishing eight-minute press conference, in which Liz Truss attempted to salvage her imploding leadership by firing her closest political ally and ditching a totemic policy that won her the job, the most telling reaction was that of officials who had served in Boris Johnson’s chaotic Downing Street.
Just a few short months ago, they had been forced to endure months of scandal, followed by the resignations of dozens of ministers. They had even awkwardly brushed shoulders with cabinet members gathered in Downing Street to tell Johnson that his time was up. But after watching Truss’s hunted demeanour on Friday afternoon, their suffering suddenly seemed trifling.
“We had a timeline of shit that was coming down the line,” said one. “The Partygate report, the privileges committee, local elections, byelections. You could see the hurdles coming. Whereas with this? It’s just a bomb thrown up in the air. It’s never happened before. And it will probably never happen again.”
Such has been the pace of the disintegration of Truss’s authority that some staff in Downing Street are said to be “in shell shock”. This weekend, without the support of sacked chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng and with incandescent MPs plotting her imminent demise, Truss is at Chequers bracing herself for what her colleagues and the markets do next.
“If they thought that getting rid of Kwasi would buy her time, it was never going to work like that,” said a recently departed government official. “It has done the opposite. It’s sped things up.”
If veterans of the Johnson era were wincing at Truss’s woes, Tory MPs were left speechless on Friday night. After a chaotic day in which Kwarteng had learned of his demise from the media and Truss’s remaining supporters were infuriated by her decision to increase corporation tax to appease the markets, senior Conservatives were readying themselves to remove yet another party leader.
“This is unsustainable,” said one former cabinet minister at the end of the outing. “I am just finding it difficult to believe that this great party and the government of the sixth-strongest economy in the world has such a shambles of a prime minister. She has trashed our reputation of economic competence. We can’t use that again.
“She’s done a U-turn on the policy on which she became prime minister. She’s thrown her best ideological pal under the bus and she’s refused to take questions and done a runner. She’s got to go.”
Friday’s press conference, in which Truss conceded her plans had gone “further and faster than markets were expecting”, was the finale of a turbocharged political unravelling. Conservative morale was already low after a Tory conference punctuated with open attacks on parts of Truss’s libertarian economic programme.
However, many MPs were plunged into despair by a leaden performance at prime minister’s questions, where Truss committed “absolutely” not to cut public spending – an incredible claim based on her economic plans – and also contrived to twice say she was “genuinely unclear”. The phrase was immediately pocketed by Labour officials for an attack ad.
Despite the mutinous mood, Truss had already signed up to address a meeting of the parliamentary party that evening. After an initial question praising the move to subsidise energy bills – including a plea to ensure the public actually knew about it – Truss was hit with a barrage of hostile questions over her economic plans.
The questions received more support than Truss’s answers. One northern MP asked her whether infrastructure projects that had increased in price would now be funded or scrapped. There was an awkward pause. “It obviously just dawned on her that these things are going to need more money – and they’re crucial to growth,” said an MP present.
The worst moment came when Robert Halfon told the prime minister her actions in the mini-budget – which caused market turmoil, an increase in mortgage bills and a collapse in political support – had undone a decade’s work.
Departing from that meeting, one MP quipped that Truss had a shelf life shorter than a “wet lettuce”. Gallows humour set in. “There’s only two things she needs to do now,” said one MP. “Win over the party and win over the public.”
Tory MPs openly discussed meetings with headhunters and the job interviews they had lined up. “You have to move now – there will suddenly be a lot of former MPs on the market,” said one. “We’ve been taken over by a small, libertarian cult.”
Even since that Wednesday meeting, there has a been a further sapping of Truss’s authority. At that point, many MPs were planning for the end of Truss after local elections in May. With many accepting that an election would be needed if the party removed yet another leader, they could then say an election would be held “within a year” – in May 2024. In the 48 hours that followed, however, those same MPs would be planning to remove Truss far sooner.
It was on Thursday morning that political drama began its descent into farce, with Kwarteng’s international humiliation. Some sources state that he had already been fighting for some big U-turns on the mini-budget, only to be resisted by Truss.
There was also a debate over whether he should head to Washington for an International Monetary Fund meeting, but he had decided it was important for Britain to be seen at the gathering. Yet with the chancellor across the Atlantic, word leaked that his mini-budget was being unstitched by Downing Streetin his absence.
Despite the embarrassment of fleeing an international meeting early, Kwarteng made the decision to leave a UK ambassador’s residence reception to catch the last plane home to London – but not before he had conducted an interview in which he declared: “I’m not going anywhere.”
Sources in the US claim he privately told officials that if he went, Truss would have to go, too, such was the closeness with which the pair had devised the mini-budget. Unaware of the fate awaiting him, he took to the air. In fact, his demise was sealed an hour before he landed on Friday morning, when Truss contacted Jeremy Hunt to offer him Kwarteng’s job.
A tight Downing Street team had been busy filleting Kwarteng’s mini-budget on Thursday, but the wheels had been set in motion days earlier with the delivery of initial economic forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility. They revealed a huge hole in the government’s spending plans, running to more than £60bn.
Cabinet ministers scattered across the country on Thursday were all left in the dark over the imminent U-turn, with some admitting as much to their various audiences. By the time Kwarteng had reached London on Friday morning, the markets had priced in changes to the mini-budget.
In the hours leading up to her Friday press conference, the Daily Star had even set up a live feed showing a picture of Truss next to a lettuce, to see which would last the longest. By then, the sacking of Kwarteng had caused anger among Truss loyalists and critics alike.
“She was right there with Kwasi before she became prime minister,” said a former cabinet minister. “Her office was briefing how close they were, how at one they were on economic understanding and ideology. What great friends they were – how they both live in Greenwich. You have to ask: why is she still in position given that she agreed on this programme entirely?”
Meanwhile, MPs were now engaging in semi-public warring on WhatsApp, with some calling for defeated leadership contenders Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt to do a deal between them and take over. Ministers began asking those seen as the coordinators of a putsch against Truss about their plans.
By Friday afternoon, most MPs were working on the basis that Truss would struggle to reach Christmas, though some think she only has days.
The issue once again is a lack of agreement over a successor. While a joint Sunak-Mordaunt ticket is seen as the most sellable option – between them, they secured the support of most MPs – Sunak’s allies are insisting he must be prime minister, with Mordaunt as chancellor.
“It is not clear who would be PM, but surely it would have to be Rishi,” said one ally. “Markets need to know the person in charge has a grip.” Another involved in canvassing MPs said the process of agreeing the next move remained difficult. “Everything is moving but everything is much more complex and difficult than all would like,” they said.
Then there is Johnson. Many MPs still regard him as the best option. “No one has his charisma, especially in an election – and maybe people will realise that they did kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” said one former minister. However, another Johnson ally said he “didn’t want it” and would be rejected by Sunak supporters. The privileges committee examining whether Johnson misled MPs over Partygate is still to report back, meaning Truss’s demise risks arriving too soon for him to mount a comeback.
Yet this weekend, frustrated MPs said disagreements over Truss’s successor may be secondary to the imperative of removing her sooner rather than later, if only to arrest Labour poll leads well in excess of 20 points. Some MPs have dispatched no-confidence letters to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee.
In theory, Truss is protected from a no-confidence vote among MPs for a year, but in practice MPs believe she would go if enough of them expressed their view – as happened with Theresa May in 2019.
The coming days will plunge Brady back into the Tory party drama just months after he was dispatched to tell Johnson that he no longer commanded the support of his own MPs. This weekend, Brady is taking a break in Athens. The contents of his unread emails on Mondaytomorrow could yet play a pivotal role in the pace with which Truss’s brief time in office comes to an end.
By Saturdaymorning, an extraordinary round of interviews by the new chancellor scrapped Truss’s political project. Senior Tories immediately concluded she was “in office but not in power”. One veteran MP said he held out the hope of a swift, conciliatory ending for the prime minister.
“She has to find the courage to walk away from this, to do it in an orderly fashion – and be thanked for having done so,” he said. “If I were her, I would just say: ‘Look, it’s not worked and it’s not right for me to continue.’ I think she would probably be best advised to sit down with Sir Graham Brady and discuss how we can have a replacement in a day or two.”