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7 October 2022

Must the Tories choose between Liz Truss and Boris Johnson?

The question that troubles Conservatives as they ponder regicide is whether the former prime minister could yet return.

By Andrew Marr

“Here is how it’s done,” says the Tory grandee. “No more than a dozen to 20 in a room. Cabinet jobs are allocated. You get a chancellor, you get a home secretary and so on. Absolute agreement about the single candidate as new PM. Then, in go the 1922 [the committee of Conservative backbenchers] and tell her – soundings taken, game up.”

The ruling “suits” of the party could simply replace the current rule book on leadership changes. The grandee snaps his fingers. “It’s over. Like that.” But then there is a pause. “Of course, then there’s always… How do we stop Boris?”

This is only one of many alternative fifth acts being discussed whenever adherents of previous Conservative governments gather together. It is a comparatively calm and sane one.

Perhaps the most important under-reported part of what is happening in the party is the nexus between business and politics. Experienced business people tell me that important UK investments have been halted since Liz Truss became Prime Minister. Overseas investors won’t bet on Britain at the moment; they won’t even think about it, one leading Tory tells me, until they get much more clarity on the medium-term fiscal plan and can judge its seriousness.

Then there is the even wilder public evidence of party meltdown. When Nadine Dorries tells the Prime Minister she is being cruel on benefit curbs, lurching too far to the right and taking the Tories towards electoral oblivion, you know something’s up. Dorries of course was making a simple and unanswerable point: nobody voted for this new change in direction. It was the same point being made by the two Greenpeace protesters during Truss’s Conservative conference speech, perhaps the first time Dorries and the environmental left have linked elbows.

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Even now, few people expect a move against Truss before Christmas. There is a sense that in all fairness, she needs to be given the chance to get her feet under the desk and quietly rethink some of her early policy ideas. In her broadcast interviews at the European political summit in Prague this week her language and demeanour seemed already less abrasive and confrontational.

But she still does not have the numbers she needs to carry her radical programme through the House of Commons. If the opinion polls carry on looking half as bad as they do today, the outlook for her is extremely bleak.

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Don’t forget, we still haven’t actually had any proposed welfare cuts or departmental spending freezes, still less the promised next tranche of tax cuts from Kwasi Kwarteng, the Chancellor. Tory MPs are beginning to turn their attention to the little local matter of how they possibly hold their seats. When it comes to measures which might prove unpopular, “will this win or lose me votes in East Puddlewick?” will – for many – matter much more than Truss’s authority or stability.

What, meanwhile, of Boris Johnson? Realistically the chances of a comeback are low. The MPs who have gone on the record expressing hostile views of him are legion; then there are those he sacked before, plus the ministers who resigned in disgust to bring him down. In short, the number of Tories in parliament who have a vested interest in keeping him away from power is high.

The man himself is apparently negotiating a monster-munch book deal, and other lucrative arrangements. At 58, he may feel the prospect of leading his party to likely defeat and then spending a decade as an opposition leader is deeply unappealing. But then comes the whiff of cordite in the nostrils of the warhorse. Who dares, wins, and all that. A friend tells me that “one minute he’s mustard keen and believes he can return, the next he is gripped with fear, the next all sanguine. So Boris…”

It’s a question of character. It is for Truss, too. The sensible approach for her now is to hunker down, avoid all unnecessary confrontations and hope that something turns up. 

The things that could turn up include a Russian collapse in Ukraine and the fall of Vladimir Putin, followed by a collapse in the gas price and a flood of new investment into relieved Western economies, including Britain’s. They also include nuclear war. Even with less dramatic news, it’s hard to see these enormous Labour polling leads enduring throughout next year.

But what about the “avoid all unnecessary confrontations” part of the recipe for survival? That would mean binning most of her leadership menu and sticking to a rigorous winter regime of humble pie with a side order of grovel sauce. It’s not really the Liz Truss style, is it? The evidence will start accumulating over the next few weeks. Again, in the end, it’s a question of character.

[See also: The Brexit revolution devours its children]