Liz Truss’s victory in the Conservative leadership contest was decisive, putting her 20,000 votes and 14 percentage points ahead of Rishi Sunak. But it was narrower than polls predicted and her 57 per cent is the smallest share won by any leader since Conservative members were given the final say in 2001 and she failed to win a majority of the total party membership.
Sunak came first in the MPs’ ballot to select two candidates to go forward to the membership and by the time she was elected leader on Monday, a majority of MPs had still not publicly endorsed her. She has no mandate from the electorate at large and a weaker one from within her party than any of her predecessors.
This is an unpromising position from which to start a premiership that faces so many great challenges, from energy bills to the broader cost-of-living crisis, a faltering health system, stalled economic growth and the threat of a trade war with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol.
In an echo of Tony Blair and New Labour, Truss said after her victory “I campaigned as a Conservative and I will govern as a Conservative”. And she promised to press on with tens of billions of pounds in unfunded tax cuts while also helping people and businesses with their energy bills at a cost to the state similar to that of the coronavirus furlough scheme.
The tax cuts will please the right-wing backbenchers who formed the core of her support in parliament, as will her expected appointment of figures like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Suella Braverman to senior positions in cabinet. Truss has little choice but to continue to pander to those MPs because her support across the party is so shallow.
If the party membership had endorsed Truss more emphatically, MPs would feel more inhibited about withholding their full co-operation with the new prime minister. The weakness of her mandate leaves Truss vulnerable to backbench rebellions any time she does anything unpopular and her decision to cut taxes for the wealthiest will make it harder to resist demands to spend more on the poor.
It also means that she has little room for manoeuvre on the protocol, making an escalation of the conflict with Europe more likely. There was never much chance of Truss halting the passage of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would give British ministers the power to unilaterally scrap most of the protocol.
She is under pressure to trigger Article 16, a move that would be viewed as hostile in Brussels but could in theory offer political cover for compromise within the framework of negotiation it provides for. But Truss enters office too weak to exploit that opportunity, leaving her trapped in the escalatory spiral towards economic self-harm that she herself designed.