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30 September 2022

Is this the end of the Tory era?

Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng have handed Labour its biggest poll lead in decades – and Conservative MPs are terrified.

By Harry Lambert

Has the axis of British politics finally shifted, after 15 long years? Ever since September 2007, when Gordon Brown failed to call an election, it has been the Conservatives who have set the pace of British politics, and Labour who have trailed in their wake. For years, it was Labour who elected ever weaker leaders: from Blair to Brown to Miliband to Corbyn. But today it is the Tories: Cameron gave way to May, who was followed by Johnson and now Truss, a prime ministerial candidate the British public could not stand when they first caught sight of her in the five-way televised Tory debate in July.

Tory MPs put her in the final round anyway, and the party membership duly elected her. That seemed unwise at the time, but it has proved to be far worse than that. Twenty-six opinion polls have been published since Truss became leader. They have, on average, given Labour a 12.5-point lead: the party’s largest average lead since March 2002, an era before the Iraq War.

A general election held today would see the parties switch places. The Tories, who hold 357 seats today, would fall to 202. Labour, who have only 198 MPs now, would win 355. Four in nine Tories are, in other words, set to lose their seats. If we narrow our focus to just the most recent round of polls, taken since the Chancellor’s mini-Budget on 23 September, Labour’s average lead is a remarkable 21 points. The most extraordinary poll, published yesterday by YouGov, put the party 33 points ahead.

Boris Johnson was deposed as PM when only three in ten Tories were at risk of losing their seats, and many stayed their hands for months because they feared a worse alternative. As one MP put it to me in April, “There are a lot of people who think, ‘F***ing hell, could you imagine how bad it’d be if Liz won?’” MPs no longer need to imagine.

“I didn’t think they’d be as inept as this,” one senior Tory told me today. And it could soon get worse. Truss and her Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, are reportedly targeting real-terms cuts to welfare in order to reduce government borrowing (Kwarteng’s opposition to welfare has been clear for a decade). “We’re bringing back the nasty party,” the MP fears.

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Earlier this week, the Bank of England began buying government bonds in an emergency move to calm markets, as it did in 2009 during the financial crisis, and in 2016 after Brexit. Charlie Bean, a former deputy governor of the Bank of England, described the Bank’s intervention to me as “a response to a fiscal action [Kwarteng’s quasi-Budget] misfiring badly”. But decision-makers at the Bank, Bean stressed, “can’t solve this problem. They can mitigate its consequences, but the solution to this lies at the door at the Treasury, with the Chancellor and the PM.”

Could Truss sack Kwarteng, as many in Westminster are starting to wonder? A second senior Tory thinks Truss is cornered whatever she does. Getting rid of Kwarteng, I suggested, would be a full-blown political disaster. But not getting rid of him, they replied, would also be a full-blown political disaster.

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The Conservative Party seems to be stuck. It has picked a leader who struggles to string together sentences, let alone set out her ideas – as was made clear by her disaster-class broadcast round on local BBC radio on Thursday 29 September. (“I couldn’t bear to listen,” says one of the Tory MPs I spoke to.)

In Truss, the Tories have found someone who manages to combine the stiffness of Theresa May with the arrogance of Boris Johnson. And she is leading one of the most inexperienced cabinets in memory. If a Tory leadership vote was held today, it is doubtful that Truss would make it out of the first round. And yet she holds Britain’s highest political office. But for how long can she survive in power if she has, as polls suggest, already lost the country?

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Who would win a general election if it was held today?]