This article was originally published on 5th June 2022. It is being repromoted today (20th July) following the news that Liz Truss is through to the final round of the Tory leadership race.
This, in essence, was the nature of the messages I received on Tuesday evening (31 May) from former parliamentary colleagues after I suggested on Newsnight that I thought the Foreign Secretary could be prime minister by the autumn. The programme had invited Polly Mackenzie, Iain Dale and me to speculate on what might happen over the next few months, and who would lead the Conservative Party into the next election. All good fun but also somewhat rushed, so I did not have a chance to elaborate on my thinking. I spent my journey home from Broadcasting House making clear to concerned friends that this was a tentative prediction and not an endorsement.
There is an assumption among many that Liz Truss cannot become prime minister. Her critics say she lacks gravitas, her views are too uncompromising, and that her media performances are uneven. It is also argued that her platform speeches can be poor. This. Is. A. Fair. Point. Dominic Cummings has described her as “about as close to properly crackers as anybody I’ve met in parliament”. This, however, is unfair. Cummings never really got to know MPs as well as he might have done. There are quite a few in parliament who are even closer to being properly crackers than Truss.
Of course, for her to become prime minister this year there first has to be a vacancy. On balance, I think this is more likely than not.
A confidence vote in the Prime Minister is imminent. Letters are continuing to go in to Graham Brady, and may have already reached the threshold. Brady is not going to announce anything while the House of Commons is in recess, especially during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, but the number of public statements by MPs from across the party suggest that numbers are almost there. My guess is that Brady will confirm next week that the threshold has been reached.
Boris Johnson will survive this vote – 180 MPs (or 50 per cent-plus) are required to remove him – but will be wounded. While some MPs have refrained from submitting a letter because they believe that Johnson has not yet been sufficiently weakened to be defeated, given the chance to vote against him they will. This will include many ministers. A third of the parliamentary party could vote against Johnson, perhaps even more.
The Prime Minister will not resign even if he wins by one, but this is still damaging. His supporters will say this gives him a year’s grace but, as Theresa May discovered, this is not necessarily the case.
The rest of the summer is likely to be grim for the government. Wakefield will go Labour, Tiverton (probably) Liberal Democrat. Other by-elections may follow. Meanwhile, the cost-of-living crisis will bite.
Then comes the Privileges Committee investigation into whether the Prime Minister misled the House about lockdown parties in Downing Street. Is it credible that he told the truth to the House of Commons about believing that the rules and guidance were followed at all times? A powerful prime minister exerting every lever at his disposal might find ways of encouraging the Conservative members of the committee to see it his way. I do not think that will be the situation.
Not that a finding that he had misled the House would shame Johnson into resigning, but his position would surely be untenable. Even a cabinet as supine as this one would know that the game was up. Wouldn’t they?
At which point we have a leadership contest. Since Rishi Sunak’s springtime nightmare, there has been no obvious favourite. Jeremy Hunt has a good chance of getting the most votes from MPs but a number of candidates think they can break through with the members. No one has a better-than-even chance of winning.
There are two factors, however, that give Truss a fighting chance. First, a growing criticism of the Johnson administration is that it is not “properly Conservative”. The Daily Telegraph and the Spectator are full of complaints that the government is putting up taxes and failing to “take advantage of Brexit” by deregulating radically. Put aside the merits of these policies and their compatibility with the Conservatives’ new coalition of support, these are clear arguments that resonate among many Conservative MPs and members.
A leadership candidate who can articulate authentically an agenda of lower taxes and deregulation may bring some ideological clarity to a party that feels lost in a Johnsonian miasma. “At least you know where she stands,” is a phrase that brings back fond memories for many Conservatives and one can imagine it being said about Truss.
The second factor is that Truss appears hungrier for the role than any of her rivals. Looking back at recent leadership victors, the winners were those who wanted it most – Johnson, most obviously; Theresa May more quietly but just as determinedly; David Cameron showed more desire than David Davis in autumn 2005. I hear that the Foreign Secretary is working closely with the European Research Group (ERG) on legislation for reform of the Northern Ireland protocol – potentially securing a key part of the electorate. She can be an effective transactional politician.
Nothing is guaranteed. There are many MPs who think she would be a disaster as prime minister. The prospect might discourage some from moving against Johnson (the prospect of her succeeding may be his best remaining argument) and, if it comes to it, plenty will vote tactically to keep her off the membership ballot. She is also perfectly capable of imploding. But a Truss victory cannot be ruled out.
This article was originally published on 5th June 2022
This article appears in the 08 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Marked Man