Liz Truss last Friday sacked her chancellor because he could not run the economy; on Wednesday she lost her home secretary, ostensibly because she could not keep secrets. By the end of another chaotic day, the prime minister’s government was on life support.
The sacking of Kwasi Kwarteng as chancellor followed the financial market turmoil he and Truss unleashed through their rightwing “mini” Budget focused on £45 billion (€52 billion) of unfunded tax cuts. The ousting of Suella Braverman as home secretary laid bare the bitterness now running through the heart of the Conservative party.
One of Truss’s longstanding allies said the mood in Downing Street was that her premiership was rapidly drawing to a close. “It’s hard to see a way back from this,” he added.
Truss’s administration is now living from hour to hour. The prime minister woke on Wednesday to newspaper headlines in Tory newspapers berating her for preparing to abandon the “triple lock” that provides inflation-linked increases in the state pension.
But by mid-morning Truss had summoned her new chancellor Jeremy Hunt to Downing Street and insisted the triple lock would stay after all, cutting off several billions of pounds of potential savings for the Treasury. Inflation is now running at 10.1 per cent.
Hunt has reversed most of Truss’s £45 billion of tax cuts. He now has to finalise tax rises and public spending cuts to fill in a £40 billion fiscal hole facing Britain, but is quickly finding that both routes are fraught with difficulty in a situation when Conservative parliamentary discipline is falling apart.
The chancellor’s allies admitted the triple lock is “totemic” – the pledge to increase the state pension in line with whichever is highest of inflation, average earnings growth or 2.5 per cent. It was a key part of the Tory 2019 election manifesto and helps to secure the support of Britain’s grey vote.
But if cutting pensions in real terms is opposed by many Tory MPs, so too are other options. Some Conservatives will be hugely resistant to tax rises – perhaps up to £20 billion in total – being eyed by Hunt for his October 31st budget.
“We won’t vote for them, it will split the party,” said one rightwing Conservative MP. Others on the Tory right agreed there would be a parliamentary rebellion.
As Truss tried to quell the pension triple lock issue before her crucial midday appearance at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons, another problem loomed over the future of her special adviser Jason Stein, accused of aggressive briefings against the prime minister’s critics.
Some Tory MPs believe Stein was behind briefings against Sajid Javid, the former chancellor, who was described by government insiders as “shit”, and Michael Gove, the former levelling up secretary, who was derided as “troubled”.
Javid complained to Truss about the briefings and pointed the finger at Stein, telling the prime minister on Sunday to fire him, according to government insiders. Javid said if the aide remained in Number 10, he would raise the matter at prime minister’s questions. Truss caved in and Stein was suspended pending a Cabinet Office investigation.
Officials said Javid had been in discussions with Truss about taking over as home secretary. “Saj ended up screwing himself out of a job and the prime minister has been left without her closest aide; it’s a terrible outcome for everyone,” said one.
In the Commons, Truss was mocked by Labour leader Keir Starmer. “How can she be held to account when she’s not in charge?” he asked. “What is the point of a prime minister whose promises don’t last a week?”
But Truss survived the ordeal with some cheers from Tory MPs, many of whom believe she must stay in Number 10 until Hunt has delivered what he has called his “eye wateringly difficult” Halloween Budget.
“I’m a fighter not a quitter,” said Truss, repeating a famous line from Peter Mandelson. She also apologised for her handling of the economy: “I’ve been clear that I’m sorry and that I’ve made mistakes.”
But throughout the afternoon, more Conservative MPs withdrew their support from Truss. William Wragg, a senior MP, revealed he had submitted a letter of no confidence in the prime minister to party grandees.
Truss faced a rebellion later over the contentious issue of resuming fracking for shale gas in England. Several Tory MPs – including her net zero adviser Chris Skidmore – said they would vote against the government on a Labour parliamentary motion opposing the policy.
The threats from Skidmore and others came despite Conservative business managers in the Commons billing the vote a “confidence motion” – implying that they would lose the Tory whip. But one senior MP said: “They’ve lost control of MPs, their threats don’t work anymore.”
Even as the fracking row was engulfing the Commons, news broke of Braverman’s shock departure. Her exit bodes badly, as she provided Truss with crucial support from the Tory rightwing.
Braverman ostensibly resigned for a technical security breach, in which she used her personal email to send information relating to government business.
But the comments in her resignation letter to Truss summed up likely trouble ahead. “Not only have we broken key pledges that were promised to our voters, but I have had serious concerns about this government’s commitment to honouring manifesto commitments,” said Braverman.
The appointment of Grant Shapps as home secretary confirmed the centrist wing of the party was attempting a takeover. Truss’s allies insisted Shapps, not Javid, was her “first choice” to succeed Braverman.
With Shapps and Hunt, supporters of former chancellor Rishi Sunak’s failed bid for the Tory leadership, installed into senior government positions, Truss’s grasp on power was weaker than ever.
Shapps said on Monday he believed Truss’s hopes of remaining prime minister were akin to “threading the eye of a needle with the lights off”, as he also compared her plight to climbing Mount Everest. Now, as one of her most senior ministers, Shapps is part of the same journey that few MPs believe Truss can survive. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022