Time is running out for Truss, Tory MPs say

There were two Prime Ministerial appearances in the House of Commons on Monday, but neither of them were delivered by Liz Truss.

The first, by the leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt, reminded the Tories what it means to have a leader who can command the chamber. When she assured MPs that the Prime Minister was not “hiding under a desk”, the House of Commons erupted in laughter.

Backbench Tories tried to hold back their grins, all too aware their own government was being humiliated. The safe performance of Mordaunt, deputizing for Truss on a pressing question as to why former Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng had been sacked, gave Tories a hint of what could lie ahead if Truss is ousted.

One backbencher said, “It was nice to see someone at the shipping box for once who knows how to communicate.”

All the while the Prime Minister was nowhere to be seen; Her absence is unexplained amid rumors she may be stepping down. “I don’t think there was a coup,” Mordaunt said, to more laughter.

Instead, it turned out that she was in a private meeting with Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee, which was made up of backbench Conservative MPs. Downing Street insiders insisted it was a “pre-planned” catch-up.

The day’s second appearance came from Jeremy Hunt, the new Chancellor, who tore up the final pieces of Truss’s economic strategy and warned MPs that more pain was to come. Truss showed up to hear Hunt, but she sat blank and left as soon as he was done.

There was a feeling in several wings of the party that Truss’s time at Downing Street was coming to an end. A cabinet minister said “this is not sustainable”.

As Tory MPs returned to Westminster on Monday, few could see a way for their survival beyond the next few weeks. “Even if we get through this immediate mess, how will she be able to do anything?” asked a veteran backbencher.

A friend of Truss summed up her distress: “[She] stood on a platform, the platform was kicked away, I wouldn’t be surprised if she were gone by Wednesday.”

The new Chancellor Jeremy Hunt in the House of Commons

New Chancellor Jeremy Hunt finished eighth in this summer’s Tory leadership contest and now finds himself in a position of power © Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament

Sir Charles Walker was the fifth Tory MP to publicly call for Truss to step down. “I don’t think their position can be restored,” he told Sky News on Monday, describing the situation as “a monumental foul-up”. He added: “If you read the mood of the faction, it has lost authority”.

George Osborne, the former Tory Chancellor, nicknamed Truss ‘PINO’ or ‘Prime Minister in name only’.

Hunt is now widely regarded as the head of government, leaving Truss at the mercy of her peers as a powerless figurehead. Some MPs speculated that Hunt’s decision to scrap almost the entire disastrous ‘mini’ budget in order to resign after her raison d’être has crumbled may embarrass the PM enough.

“How can she not resign when her whole argument for the country’s future is completely shredded?” asked an older Tory. Another, who backed Truss for the lead, said: “It would be crazy if she doesn’t go.”

Hunt, who finished eighth in the Tory leadership contest this summer with the support of just 18 MPs, now finds himself in a powerful position to rewrite Truss’s economic plan. He clearly feels that the market, not Truss, is his real boss.

“Nothing is off the table,” he said in his statement Monday morning.

As recently as Friday, Truss allies insisted that Hunt would stick with the government’s now-defunct “growth plan” without further reversal and would not start with “a blank sheet of paper.” Hunt does not appear to have received the memo.

But despite Truss’ weak position, there is little consensus among Tory MPs as to when and how she might be ousted or who would replace her.

Her opponents hope Brady and the 1922 Committee will be forced to act and change the rules to allow a vote on her position if more than 100 letters of no-confidence are tabled against the Prime Minister by Tory MPs. “If there is a vote, it will hardly scratch double digits,” predicted one MP.

Prime Minister Liz Truss listens as Jeremy Hunt dismantles her economic policies

Prime Minister Liz Truss listens as Jeremy Hunt dismantles her economic policies © UK Parliament/AFP/Getty Images

There are Conservative MPs who believe the party should refrain from overthrowing Truss. “It would only create more instability as we just managed to calm the markets,” said one. But most believe she cannot lead the party to the next election.

Some MPs are keen to stage a restricted leadership contest involving no Tory party members, although their role in choosing the leader is spelled out in the party’s charter. According to one of those involved, a “very high threshold” is being discussed to ensure that only a few candidates get on the ballot.

Even if Truss is removed, few believe there can be a “crowning” to immediately install a new Tory leader. “There is absolutely no chance that there will not be full competition,” said a veteran party official.

But limiting voting in any leadership race to MPs rather than party members is likely to face backlash. A former cabinet minister said “there is no way the Volunteer Party can be excluded from a competition”. “That would be legally contestable. The best we can hope for is to complete the process in 10 days or less.”

Instead, older Tories believe their best hope is to stage a contest that lasts a couple of weeks. “We can make the MP shortlist in a week and then have the voluntary party element in 10 days,” said one MP.

Meanwhile, allies of former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, including Commons Treasury selection committee chairman Mel Stride and former City Secretary John Glen, have urged their supporters to step back.

Truss’ greatest threat is that much of the campaign to replace her has already begun. “Yesterday it was over and today it’s even more over,” said a minister.

https://www.ft.com/content/5c4827ab-9882-4cbb-a2ba-049dc5f363bb Time is running out for Truss, Tory MPs say

Adam Bradshaw

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