Liz Truss’s chaotic final 24 hours mirrors Brian Cowen’s farcical downfall

Fianna Fáil had little choice but to call an election in which the coalition parties were routed. The Tories could meet same fate

The last 24 chaotic hours of British prime minister Liz Truss’s chaotic 44 days in Downing Street called to mind the manner in which former taoiseach Brian Cowen’s shaky coalition was dismantled in early 2011.

Cowen had decided that he would carry out a root-and-branch reshuffle of his government in an effort to inject energy and fresh thinking in advance of what was already going to be a difficult election.

He sacked six of his long-standing ministers and replaced them with younger and less experienced TDs. The Greens, Fianna Fáil’s coalition partners, revolted and the reshuffle descended into farce. Six ministers had resigned but Cowen was unable to replace them. Instead, the few ministers he had left had to take on multiple portfolios; it was unedifying.

“You are running out on to the pitch with only half a team,” taunted Michael Noonan of Fine Gael.


In the chaos, the Dáil was suspended and a large group of Fianna Fáil TDs — led by the late Brian Lenihan — huddled around the doors of the chamber trying to make sense of what had just happened and desperately trying to regroup. The coalition had no choice but to call a general election in which both parties were destroyed.

To Irish observers, the week in Westminster has echoes of that downfall. And the Tories could meet the same dismal fate as Fianna Fáil and the Greens in 2011.

To compound her misfortune, Truss was outlasted by a lettuce with a blonde wig set up by the Daily Star as a useful comparator once it became clear that the prime minister’s days were likely numbered

Truss’s shambolic period as prime minister lasted 44 days, making her the shortest-lived holder of that office in history. She lasted a week longer in the job than her erstwhile chancellor of the exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng. To compound her misfortune, Truss was outlasted by a lettuce with a blonde wig set up by the Daily Star as a useful comparator once it became clear that the prime minister’s days were likely numbered.

At another time, perhaps Seneca might have been chosen for her political epitaph. “This life that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily that we find life at an end just when we are getting ready to live.”

But Truss’s pathetic premiership will be remembered as a sad comedy, best summed up by former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev’s cruel tweet: “Bye bye Liz Truss. Congrats to lettuce.”

The events of this week have probably been the most chaotic in modern British politics. On Wednesday afternoon, Truss was beleaguered but still standing. She was seen as having done enough — barely enough — at prime minister’s questions to just hang on to power for now. “I’m a fighter, not a quitter,” she declared defiantly.

Within 24 hours she would be reduced to the status of quitter. Over the course of an extraordinary Wednesday, what was left of Truss’s premiership unravelled spectacularly.

As she attempted to enact some of her agenda, her MPs were told they would lose the whip if they did not oppose a Labour motion against fracking, notwithstanding the fact that the party’s own 2019 manifesto — the last on which it was elected — held a similar position.

Liz Truss resigns. Now what?

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It all quickly descended into a scrum. Conservative whips cast the motion as a confidence vote in the government, issuing a three-line whip with mandatory attendance. In a confusing twist, the minister in charge of climate then went into the dispatch box and said it was not a confidence vote.

The voting lobby outside the chamber became something like the tunnel at Croke Park at half-time of an All-Ireland final. There was pushing and jostling and claims that the Tory whips were bullying and harassing their members to vote for the government and not to cross the lobby.

Then rumours started to circulate that chief whip Wendy Morton and her deputy had both stepped down. Soon after both MPs refuted that rumour. A backbencher, Charles Walker, described the scenes in a television interview as an “absolute disgrace”.

“All those people that put Liz Truss in Number 10, I hope it was worth it,” he said, before adding that he had had enough of “talentless people”.

Here in Westminster on Friday, 24 hours after Truss stepped down, the atmosphere has calmed a little. Few MPs were around the parliamentary estate and it was relatively quiet at the media stands on the green across the way. The respite is only temporary. For unlike this summer’s leadership contest, which took many weeks, the race to find the successor to Truss could be done and dusted by Monday.

Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee, was one of the party grandees who went to Truss on Thursday morning to say the game was up. Within an hour Brady was setting out the rules of the contest. Each candidate will need to have 100 nominations. That high threshold will mean that a maximum of three candidates will be in a position to stand and it’s more likely to be two.

Senior figures in the party want to avoid a repeat of the membership electing a leader who was unable for the job

If there is only one candidate, he or she will become the leader on Monday. If there are three candidates, the first ballot will be held on Monday to boil it down to two and the result will be known at 6pm. If two candidates stand (or are left after the preliminary ballot) it will mean the vote will have to go to the membership of the party, who will vote online.

In the summer, the membership reversed the result of the ballot of MPs which heavily backed former chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak. Senior figures in the party want to avoid a repeat of the membership electing a leader who was unable for the job and accelerated its downward spiral in the polls

Sunak has been installed as favourite, but nobody is calling it a foregone conclusion. There is leader of the House Penny Mordaunt, who reached the final three last time round, and Suella Braverman, briefly home secretary under Truss before her resignation earlier this week, might throw her hat in the ring as a representative of the right.

In a plot twist that seems as plausible as Bobby Ewing coming back from the dead in Dallas many years ago, another contender has entered the fray. Less than six months after being deposed, Boris Johnson is back (or almost back, he’s flying home on Friday from a holiday in the Caribbean). Johnson is a divisive figure within his party and still faces a parliamentary inquiry into whether or not he misled parliament over parties held in 10 Downing Street.

If the vox pops on radio and TV are anything to go by, there remains a lot of support for Boris Johnson among the public

Foreign office minister Jesse Norman said on Friday that choosing Johnson would be an “absolutely catastrophic decision”. On the other hand, Jacob Rees-Mogg launched a pro-Johnson Boris or Bust campaign. The blogger Guido Fawkes is keeping a spreadsheet of support and has Sunak ahead with 61 declared MPs, Johnson with 41 and Mordaunt with 18. It’s early days though. The right-wing European Research Group is meeting on Monday to decide on who it will back. Its verdict will be critical.

That said, if the vox pops on radio and TV are anything to go by, there remains a lot of support for Johnson among the public. If the contest went to a vote of the membership next week, could he forge an improbable comeback?

Closer to home, there is another vital issue that is not being even mentioned in London. If the institutions are not up and running by the end of October, the consequence will be fresh Assembly elections in the North. With constitutional matters in Westminster to attend to, any meaningful negotiations on restoring powersharing, or resolving differences over the Northern Ireland protocol, will once again be long-fingered. It’s unlikely the new Tory leader, announced on October 28th at the latest, will put those issues high on his or her priority list.