Liz Truss makes history for all the wrong reasons

The Conservatives have learned that ideology cannot work in a vacuum. But who has the broad appeal to unite them now?

Here endeth the lesson. Time has been called on the brief, disastrous premiership of Liz Truss after just 44 days and still roughly 20 days too late. She will be Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister, though it will make her an answer to a quiz question rather than earn her a place in history. Not even those who predicted that her premiership would go wrong imagined it would implode quite so rapidly or catastrophically.

Recent days have shown that she simply could not regain control of her government after the shambles of the preening ideological “mini” budget which shook the markets and sent gilt yields soaring. The price of these errors will be paid by the British public, many of whom will end up worse off than they were before her tax-cutting budget. Political stability has also been wrecked. Britain will soon have had three prime ministers within two months.

What happens next? The only thing one can say with reasonable certainty is that there will not be a general election. While the moral case for one is substantial, fear of one now when the party stands at about 20 per cent in the polls, is perhaps the only unifying factor among MPs. Neutral observers might reasonably ask why the people who chose Truss can be trusted to choose her successor, but they are nonetheless going to do so. There will be a new Conservative prime minister by next Friday at the latest.

There is also the question of whether any candidate can deliver the much-needed political stability. The Conservative party is now riven with faction and bile and it is questionable whether anyone is capable of governing it, especially given the need to drive through a number of unpopular measures.


The logical choice is Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor and former runner-up. Having warned of the dangers of Truss’s unfunded tax cuts, he has the grim satisfaction of having been proved right in record time. An early opinion poll of members suggests they at least have the humility to recognise and rectify their error.

But Sunak remains widely disliked by the right of the Tory party and especially by those with a residual loyalty to Boris Johnson, who wrongly blame him for their leader’s fall. As the last contest showed, he has his own political weaknesses but, if the first task is to reassure the markets and the wider world that the UK wishes once again to be taken seriously, he is the logical option.

Of the other mainstream candidates, Jeremy Hunt insists he wishes to stay as chancellor to oversee the new fiscal strategy. He has already brought some stability to the economy, and MPs and markets will hope all candidates commit to keeping him in position. Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons and third placed candidate last time, is manoeuvring hard to become the unity candidate. She is a Brexiteer and personally popular in the party but many Tories have doubts whether she has the gravitas for the situation the country is in.

Other candidates might include Suella Braverman, who resigned as home secretary yesterday amid a row over her desire to impose strict curbs on immigration. She will position herself as the candidate of the right and the pure Brexiteers, but will probably struggle to get enough nominations if the threshold is set high.

The real wild card, however, is Johnson. He does at least have the merit of having been elected by the country and possibly being the only person who could hold his electoral coalition together. The flipside is many MPs remember why he was ousted and he still faces a Commons inquiry over partygate. There are enough Tory MPs mooting his return for the notion to be considered, and he did notably conclude his final prime minister’s questions with the words “hasta la vista”. His allies are already taking soundings.

To truncate this contest and limit the field candidates will need to be nominated by 100 MPs, a move that will limit the field to three or possibly two contenders. This may be too high for Johnson. Given that Sunak is highly likely to hit the target, those determined to stop him will be forced to coalesce around a viable rival, quite possibly Mordaunt.

Truss fell because she forgot three fundamental lessons. First: economics always wins in the end. You can defy financial gravity for a while but you cannot abolish it. She won the party leadership by pretending the rules did not apply. Since Brexit, many Conservatives have convinced themselves they know better than experts. Truss believed this in spades. The Treasury, the Bank of England, the markets — all could be defied by a leader with guts to do so. The party and the country have been reminded in the most painful way that this was not the case.

Second: ideology in a vacuum has no value. Whatever the theoretical merit of any particular idea, it is worthless and often dangerous if it is not married to the circumstances. There was a perfectly respectable argument for Truss’s growth and tax cuts agenda, but not in this moment.

Third: all prime ministers have to carry their party. She made enemies unnecessarily, excluding all senior colleagues who supported Sunak, even those who would have backed her had she put them inside the tent. Once she ran into trouble she had a willing opposition on her own backbenches.

There is a final point. Johnson, Truss and their allies on the Tory right routinely denounced critics as gloomsters and declinists determined to talk the UK down. In fact it is they who have driven down its economy and tarnished Britain’s international standing. It has been painful to see the country through the eyes of its allies. Those who shout loudest about the need for belief in Britain have turned out to be those who did most to dispel that faith.

— Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022