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19 October 2022

Which Tory leader would Labour fear the most?

The economic crisis means Team Starmer believes the Tories will struggle under any new leader.

By Rachel Wearmouth

“We need to grip inflation, because it is the enemy that makes everyone poorer,” Rishi Sunak said, repeatedly, during his doomed bid for the Tory leadership.

The Office for National Statistics confirmed on 19 October that inflation rose to 10.1 per cent in September, with prices rising at their fastest rate for 40 years, and the former Chancellor’s words once again sound prescient.

Meanwhile, despite Liz Truss being forced to U-turn on almost every measure in her disastrous mini-Budget, the average two- and five-year fixed mortgage rate being offered by lenders remains over 6 per cent, according to Moneyfacts data.

The Prime Minister, who amid the continued market chaos won’t commit to the Tory manifesto promise of increasing state pensions in line with inflation, will today (19 October) face Keir Starmer in the Commons for her first PMQs since sacking Kwasi Kwarteng.

And as David Gauke warns, if the Conservatives fail to learn the lessons of the collapse of Trussonomics they will confront electoral oblivion.

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The PM will come under pressure as her emergency Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, draws up plans for spending cuts in all departments to fill a £40bn hole in the nation’s finances and after five Conservative MPs have publicly called for her to resign.

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Truss, who held drinks in No 10 with backbenchers on 18 October in another attempt to keep her job, is braced for a painful session in PMQs and will perhaps be looking over her shoulder as often as she looks to Starmer.

Some Tories are said to be hoping Labour MPs are not too rowdy so that their own dissent can be heard loud and clear.

Michael Gove, who is not exactly an ally of the PM’s, has said it was “no longer a question of whether Liz Truss goes, but when she goes” and how it was no secret that Truss’s role as prime minister now effectively amounts to “a job share between Jeremy Hunt and the bond markets”.

Starmer’s team, too, are beginning to turn their attention away from the lame duck PM to who may replace her.

Who do they fear? Most would tell you that Penny Mordaunt, who as Commons leader now gets more front bench time to make her position and abilities clear, presents the greatest challenge.

But there is an increasing acceptance that Sunak would be best placed to take on Starmer.

Not only is Boris Johnson’s chancellor continually being proved right on the economy, one of Labour’s central attacks against him – that the billionaire Tory is out of touch and cannot understand people’s lives – will now be less effective should he take the top job.

As I wrote yesterday, Conservative rebels cannot decide on a unity candidate and may choose not to move until Truss and Hunt push through a fresh round of austerity.

Given the toxic cost-of-living pressures facing households and Truss’s complete destruction of the Tories’ record on managing the country’s finances, however, Team Starmer remains relaxed about whoever manages to depose the PM. The polls show Labour is on course for a huge victory regardless.

[See also: Liz Truss to resign as Prime Minister after just 44 days]

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