In the final weeks of Boris Johnson’s premiership you could feel his authority dissipate in successive Prime Minister’s Questions. PMQs today was reminiscent of those performances, except that Liz Truss is only on her second and she never had much authority to lose.
Laughter is the telling sign. The guttural welcome from her MPs as she approached the dispatch box today was unconvincing and overwrought. The Prime Minister kept saying “I’m genuinely unclear”, which sounded more like an admission than an indictment of the opposition. Her own MPs could barely suppress their chuckles. When not laughing, they averted their gazes, their faces sullen with despair.
There was little for them to praise. Truss’s answers lurched from U-turn to U-turn. She said the government will launch a publicity campaign to encourage lower energy use days after refusing to do so. She said she would ban no-fault evictions days after briefings suggested otherwise.
This was not a reset, but a repeat of botched arguments. Truss needed to win the confidence of the markets as well as her MPs. When the Bank of England’s monetary intervention ends on Friday the markets are set to revolt. The government needs to state how the tax cuts announced last month will be paid for, and Truss only really has two options: deep spending cuts, or ditching parts of the mini-Budget.
She said today that she would “absolutely” not cut public spending to bring down debt, then said that debt will fall “not by cutting public spending, but by making sure we spend public money well”. How will the government make that happen? Inflation will eat away at public sector budgets in real terms without the nominal level changing, for sure, but that won’t suffice to bring down debt. Straight after PMQs, Mel Stride, the chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, stood up in the Commons and called for the government to reverse the Budget’s “tax announcements”. With Truss’s authority shot, that pressure will only build.
[See also: Will Kwasi Kwarteng resign to save Liz Truss?]