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5 September 2022

Liz Truss’s problems start now

The incoming PM faces a nation on the brink and a Labour Party readying itself for her arrival.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Liz Truss has officially won the Conservative Party leadership contest – but it was not the “landslide” victory her supporters had hoped for.

Truss, the Boris Johnson continuity candidate, beat Rishi Sunak by securing 57 per cent of Tory members’ votes against his 43 per cent. It doesn’t come close to Johnson’s thumping victory over Jeremy Hunt in 2019 (66 per cent against 34 per cent), or David Cameron’s triumph over David Davis in 2005 (68 per cent against 32 per cent).

The relatively narrow win could spell trouble for Truss on the backbenches – which will likely include Michael Gove and Johnson, who desperately clung on to the last and might believe he can return.

It also empowers Sunak, even as Truss begins to appoint ministers to her new cabinet. She refused to shake Sunak’s hand before giving her short acceptance speech. Was it wise for the new leader to ignore a former chancellor who has the backing of a huge chunk of activists, not to mention MPs?

Nodding to her base, she personally thanked Johnson, the “outgoing leader” and “my friend”. She said he was admired “from Kyiv to Carlisle” – notably stopping short of the Scottish border. The incoming PM also put paid to suggestions the Tories are preparing for a snap election, declaring that she will “deliver a great victory for the Conservative Party in 2024”.

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The first item in her in-tray will be tackling the cost-of-living crisis and energy bills. Sources suggest she is preparing for a price cap on bills and a £100bn package, with a “fiscal event” to be announced later this week. It is expected to be paid for through a mixture of borrowing and tax cuts. Truss is also reportedly looking to cull scores of Whitehall special advisers and aides as a way of setting an example ahead of new public-sector austerity.

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“During this leadership campaign, I campaigned as a Conservative and I will govern as a Conservative,” she declared in her victory speech.

[See also: PMQs today: Liz Truss’s ideological dividing lines could be a gift to Labour]

Westminster is also saturated with rumours about who will get which job in Truss’s top team, with figures on the right of the party in line for promotion. She is also expected to bring in a number of figures from free market think tanks, including the Institute of Economic Affairs and the TaxPayers’ Alliance. Priti Patel has already resigned as home secretary.

With Truss repeating her campaign line of “deliver, deliver, deliver” during the speech, each new minister will get a list of tasks pinned to pledges made in the 2019 manifesto. Politicos will recall Johnson spent his final day of campaigning in December 2019 on a milk float (and subsequently hiding in a fridge) stressing he would deliver as PM.

Keir Starmer, meanwhile, rallied Labour MPs tonight, but had a note of caution. He called the leaked audio of her slating British workers’ work ethic “toxic”, and added: “But we will never underestimate Liz Truss… She is a talented politician who has got to the top through hard work and determination. She is nobody’s fool and she will do whatever it takes to keep them [the Conservative Party] in power.”

He wanted Labour to focus on its key messages, on both law and order and public services, highlighting in particular a Times report that said cancer, maternity and mental health would not be priorities under Truss. “You may as well leave a python looking after your pet hamster, as leave this mob in charge of our public services,” he said.

The mood on the parliamentary estate was remarkably low-energy considering Britain finally has a new leader. Perhaps MPs were mindful of the grim reality of the cost-of-living crisis, or simply fatigued by the political churn – the UK is on its fourth PM in just over six years.

Insiders will be watching Boris Johnson’s farewell speech, scheduled to take place at 7.30am tomorrow, to see if he references any future plans. Meanwhile, Truss will jet to the Balmoral estate for the Queen to formally ask her to form a government.

The incoming Prime Minister’s thoughts may turn from keeping her party happy to serving the public. With thunderstorms predicted, literally and metaphorically, Truss will give her first address to the nation as premier. Only then will we begin to see how she intends to govern.

[See also: Liz Truss’s victory speech was crushingly banal]

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