Simon Jenkins: A prime minister should stand for something. Liz Truss stood for nothing

Analysis: The Tories have made it clear that they regret their choice of leader

Summer 2022 must mark a low moment in the history of British politics.

Whatever emerges in the next week, the mother of parliaments has been reduced to a bad joke, its constitution a laughing stock. Four prime ministers have been ejected from office in six years, none by the vote of a democratic electorate. A fifth is about to be chosen, again without an election.

British politics is famously the democracy of the club, not the mob. The electorate – the “mob” – may choose the club once every five years, but from then on the club is sovereign. It decides who should be most worthy of its loyalty as the nation’s leader. It decides when that loyalty has been tested to destruction.

The man who wielded the knife over the prime minister this Thursday morning was Graham Brady, the custodian of that test for the Conservatives. Truss had reached the point of destruction just six weeks into office.


It can perhaps be said that at least Britain knows how to correct its leadership mistakes in a hurry – other nations might note – but beyond that the process of uproar and defenestration was indefensible. The club, exclusive and rule-bound, had descended into a bar-room brawl, as it often does at such moments. The Conservative party’s talent pool was long ago drained dry by Boris Johnson’s Brexit cronyism.

Four leaders and four cabinets of diminishing ability have come and gone. A prime minister is normally supposed to stand for something. Truss in Downing Street today stood for nothing. The obvious answer is for democracy to revert to the electorate. With the Tories under a new leader, the parties should set out their manifestos and invite the public’s judgment.

In the post-referendum turmoil – surely the root cause for these troubles – such a mandate renewal was chosen by Theresa May in 2017 and Johnson in 2019. The argument for an election now is that Labour would probably win overwhelmingly. A clear mandate would be given, even to an inexperienced new regime under Keir Starmer, his authority strengthened by a mood of national emergency.

Democracy would have been refreshed. At this moment in time that does not look likely. The old club still occupies Westminster and most of its members are disinclined to pack up and walk over the top. They have two more years of legal tenure and their jobs are at extreme risk. In addition, the national interest must be a consideration.

The country has a new chancellor in Jeremy Hunt, who appears in command of his brief and with a rescue programme for presentation in a week’s time. This will be tough and unpopular, but its implementation is vital. It cannot make sense for it to be stymied by being subjected to a general election campaign. Even in its hour of hope, a sensible Labour Party should see the wisdom of that.

Sometimes economics should take precedence over politics. What to say about Truss? She was elected by her party six weeks ago and was accorded a real but nervous welcome by her MPs. Then came her mini-budget, blatantly rejecting Johnson’s mandate on which she and her cabinet had been elected. It was an ideological absurdity, but the electorate were not needed to vote it down.

It was ironically the market forces of brute capitalism that brought a Tory government to its senses – and its knees. Truss’s swift sacking of her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, was an outrage, as if he was to blame. When she then had to accept Hunt’s budgetary U-turn, the humiliation was complete. Her public performances became lame and shallow.

The Tories have now made it clear that they regret their choice of leader. Will they be apologising at the next election? But the immediate aftermath may prove more difficult. MPs must gather in their familiar corners to agree a caretaker team, to sell to party members as taking them through to the next election. What they do not need is a return to leadership “manoeuvres”, campaigns and divisive exposure. The public would scream. That, at least, they have acknowledged in the decision to complete a new election within a week.

Currently the most plausible solution seems to be for Hunt to move to No 10, with Rishi Sunak returning to the Treasury and Penny Mordaunt going to the Foreign Office. Their single-minded task would be to put the wheels back on the economy. But it remains an open question as to whether MPs can agree on such a lineup. Hunt was only their eighth choice of leader six months ago, though it was to his credit that he revised Kwarteng’s budget and settled the markets down in two weeks flat. His reward may be Downing Street after all, but it will be a bitter and probably brief stay.

This must be the club’s last chance. The essence of parliamentary sovereignty is the Commons’s right and duty to interpret the wish of the electorate in changing circumstances. Whatever that wish may have been at the last election in 2019, these Tory MPs have massively abused it. Charged with delivering the country coherent, consistent and principled leadership, they have failed. They have one last chance. If they fail again, the mob will justly take to the streets. – Guardian