Over the course of yesterday afternoon, what was left of the Prime Minister’s authority disintegrated. At midday, Liz Truss arose in the House of Commons chamber for Prime Minister’s Questions. The PM wouldn’t speak about market turmoil or tax cuts, only the government’s energy package. The faces of her MPs on the back benches were grim with despair. When they weren’t averting their gaze, they tried to suppress their laughter. Laughter is always the telling sign.
From then on, MPs speculated about the potential size of Labour’s majority if a general election was called. Many are resigned to their fate. Some have resorted to gallows humour. “All those with a majority smaller than 10,000 don’t think they’ll have a seat after the next election,” one said.
At 5pm, the PM addressed the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. The atmosphere was “funereal” – as one attendee put it to me. The MP Robert Halfon accused the Prime Minister of “trashing” the last ten years of conservatism. Another attendee was bemused that the PM still wouldn’t talk about the bond market even behind closed doors.
“What is there to say?” a former cabinet member said. “People are now asking why I didn’t vote for her. Now they know.” Or, as another former minister put it: “the public is sick to death of the Tory party psychodrama. It’s started to feel like a flight path from 1995 to 1997. On top of all of that, you’ve got the fact that Boris Johnson has demotivated us and damaged our self-respect by lying to us, the Commons and everybody.”
A further MP gives Truss a “few months or a year”. Truss is technically protected from a leadership challenge for 12 months from her appointment. But as one architect of Johnson’s decline notes, once enough MPs turn on her, the rules become immaterial. Johnson was forced to resign when he was technically protected under the same rules. Some MPs are now hoping to crown a unity candidate as PM to avoid the humiliation of another leadership contest.
What options lie open to Truss? The key task for the government is bolstering its credibility on the economy. Market turmoil is expected to return when the Bank of England’s support programme ends on Friday. At that point, keeping the budget in its current form seems untenable. She may need to signal an about turn by sacking the Chancellor. Some MPs are already going through the list of potential replacements. But that may not suffice. The disunity that began at conference is now in full flow. Truss doesn’t elicit the anger that MPs felt towards Boris Johnson. Instead, many MPs simply don’t think she can do the job. She’s lost whatever authority she had – and her demise now feels inevitable.
[See also: Liz Truss prepares to sack Kwasi Kwarteng]