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14 October 2022

Liz Truss makes Jeremy Hunt her human shield, but how long can she last?

The choice of Chancellor is designed to appease the Prime Minister’s critics. But it’s hard to see how they can work together.

By Andrew Marr

So what is she up to? Having lost her central proposition as Prime Minister and her key ally, Kwasi Kwarteng, what is the Liz Truss plan now? Apparently, at long last, to reach out to other parts of her fuming party. Yet the level of cognitive dissonance in her terse press conference this afternoon (14 October) after sacking the chancellor was unsustainable.

“The mission remains” she asserted, even after the markets had demolished its methods. She’d “acted decisively” because her priority was “economic stability” – even though it was her decisive policy which caused the radical instability in the first place. No sorry, no apology, no shred of contrition.

The nearest she came was a when she said that “parts of our mini-Budget went further and faster than markets were expecting”, as if the markets were slightly dim teenagers who hadn’t read the appropriate pamphlets. But most of what the Prime Minister said was what she has been saying over the past few weeks: the monotone, unblinking pap about growth, world conditions and acting – you guessed it – decisively.

The decisive action was to sack her friend and replace him with the widely respected Jeremy Hunt, who now has the job of using his reputation to shield her from defenestration in the next few weeks. I’m reminded of Jeremy Thorpe’s quip to Harold Macmillan after his brutal cabinet reshuffle in 1962: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life.”

But can Hunt save Truss’s political life? True, when he ran for the Conservative leadership against Boris Johnson he was also in favour of cutting back corporation tax, albeit in very different economic circumstances. But he has been brought in, really, as the anti-Kwarteng, the standard-bearer of liberal, One Nation Toryism against which Truss has positioned herself so aggressively.

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He’s the bodyguard. But can a government of two such different characters yoked together by crisis really convince the markets it has a coherent plan? What is the compromise agenda between the neoliberal, ideological Truss approach to growth, and the more centrist Hunt version? Bringing his old mucker from the Department of Health, Edward Argar, with him into the Treasury suggests that Jeremy Hunt is determined to be his own man.

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Liz Truss had two other options. She could have done the decent thing and resigned. The policy faults were hers as much as Kwarteng’s. Minus him and the “growth agenda”, she is a leader without a purpose – beyond, it seems, staying in the job.

Or she could have tried to pre-empt the still only semi-organised coup against her by Tory MPs. They had been trying to create an emergency cabinet embracing all parts of the party and re-employing some of the talent left adrift on the back benches. Truss could have tried to reorganise her government in a way that showed she “got it” and was reaching out, resolved to be a different kind of leader henceforth.

That might have worked, or not. Perhaps bringing in Hunt, who is well liked, was her version of it, but it doesn’t seem enough. We await the judgement, as ever, of the markets. They, and the party, may conclude that a Prime Minister who has lost her policy, her chancellor and much of her parliamentary majority, remains herself a source of grave instability.

The sacking of Kwarteng, whose letter of resignation was a model of good grace, has presumably bought Truss some time. Tory MPs now thinking primarily about their own futures will wonder whether their best bet isn’t an aimless government that trudges on hoping that something turns up – a sudden fall in energy prices or a sudden fall in President Putin for instance. They might give her to Christmas, eyeing the polls the while. Others are ready to roll the dice right now, trying to accumulate enough support to push her out within a couple of weeks.

I honestly don’t understand how she can last much longer. It may be a parliamentary putsch. It may be a further haemorrhage in the markets. But this, the dramatic sacking of a brand new chancellor on his way back from his first IMF meeting in Washington, to be replaced by someone with whom the Prime Minister can feel no real affinity, does not feel like the end of this story.

[See also: Liz Truss sacks Kwasi Kwarteng – will she be next to go?]

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