Deputy Editor-in-Chief Aman on the resignation of Liz Truss and the looming Conservative leadership election.
It wasn’t so long ago that our eyes were glued to Westminster developments as Boris Johnson’s premiership collapsed over a matter of 48 hours. That collapse was the culmination of his scandal-ridden leadership slowly melting after the shocking revelations of Downing Street parties. There was a forboding sense amongst some of the Tory MPs as they urged Boris Johnson to resign in a manner that resembled some sort of mercy killing. The forces behind Liz Truss’s resignation could not be more different.
Liz Truss’s resignation leaves her UK premiership as the shortest on record. Her 44 day leadership is less than half the length of George Canning’s which was cut short by his passing in 1827. Shockingly, her time as prime minister was shorter than the leadership election that brought her to power in the first place. It is the nature of this leadership election and her claim to the role that makes her downfall more interesting than her predecessor’s. Boris Johnson, for all his faults, commanded the party to a landslide victory in 2019 with a majority of 80 seats. There was an air of positivity around him and his pledge to get Brexit done. It was his landslide majority and electoral mandate that gave him some claim to stay in the leadership. By replacing Johnson, Truss technically also had this powerful mandate. However, it was immediately clear that her intention was to deviate from the 2019 manifesto. Her hard right libertarianism wooed the Tory members more than Rishi Sunak’s prudent approach to government finances.
Liz Truss’s self stylised new government attempted to hit the ground running by delivering a comprehensive energy bills support package and a Mini Budget. Instead, the Mini Budget was a car crash from which she never recovered. Despite being against “handouts”, she pledged £150bn to fight the energy crisis over 2 years. This was coupled with £45bn worth of unfunded tax cuts and a dismissal of the Office for Budget Responsibility.
Truss and her now-former Chancellor, Kwazi Kwarteng, created a black hole in government finances that sent the pound spiralling and caused a run on pension funds. With pension funds hours away from ruin, the Bank of England triggered a £65bn emergency scheme to prop up UK government bonds. The result was a crippled pound and searing mortgage costs for the average UK homeowner. Liz Truss and her chancellor were punished by the very markets they believe in so passionately.
It was all downhill from there for Liz Truss. She and Kwarteng faced brutal criticism from the public, experts and their own party. The timing couldn’t be worse as Keir Starmer’s Labour Party enjoyed a resounding party conference and a record lead in the polls. Her immediate reaction was to fire Kwasi Quarteng and replace him with the more moderate Jeremy Hunt in order to calm the markets. But Hunt’s sharp reversals of tax cuts further humiliated Truss. Unfortunately for Truss, the damage was done and no apology would stick.
Those on the left of the Conservative Party were furious at the economic mess she had created. The hard right of the party were livid that she had destroyed the credibility of their fantasy libertarian agenda. Liz Truss was left with no place to turn within her party. However, the public was the true judge, jury and executioner of her premiership. The public didn’t buy the line that the market chaos had nothing to do with Truss. As far as the public were concerned, they faced financial ruin that they had absolutely no hand in voting for. Thanks to the way in which she came to power, her fabricated mandate was undemocratic and weak from the start.
Despite calls for a general election from the SNP, Labour and the public, the Tories have chosen a week long leadership contest. This leadership contest will essentially set a far higher bar for runners. Runners would need 100 votes out of the 357 Tory MPs to even make the first ballot. At most, there could be three who pass this first stage. They would be whittled down to the final two on Monday the 24th where an “indicative” vote amongst MPs will take place the same day. Whoever loses the MP sense check will probably come under intense pressure to stand down. Assuming that they don’t, there will be an online ballot of Tory members on Friday the 28th of October to decide the winner.
The odds are in favour of Rishi Sunak to win the contest. His predictions of the dire consequences of Truss’s policies were spot on and he is the only Tory MP with any shred of economic credibility. On appearance, he seems to have a strong balance between the right and left of the party; he is a Brexiteer that believes in free markets but is also capable of fiscal discipline. However, in actuality, the hard right of the party has no time for Sunak and probably for good reason. Sunak is the type of technocratic, professional Tory prime minister that was destroyed by the radical ERG and the populism of Brexit. As a result, he may be exactly what the Tories need at this moment. There is also speculation that Boris Johnson is looking to make his grand return. He remains a divisive figure in the party with some on the right of the party backing him, including Jacob Rees-Mogg.
It seems like the Tory leadership election is going to be just like the last two. It will be a battle between the moderate and the populist right wings of the party. As the Conservatives play school-boy politics and scheme like characters from Game of Thrones, families across the country are skipping meals and face financial ruin. We can only hope that the Tory members decide to change tact and put the national interest before party politics. If they do, Sunak will likely be the next prime minister. Regardless, by next week Britain will have its fifth Tory prime minister in six years. Only time will tell if they can reverse the sinking ship that is the Conservative-led Britain.