An embattled Liz Truss – who presumably came out from under a desk – braved her make-or-break PMQs with Keir Starmer. How did she do? Well, as the painful exchanges wore on, it became clear she is altogether done.
Starmer’s opening joust was a playful joke about the PM’s precarious leadership: “A book is being written about the Prime Minister’s time in office. Apparently it’s out by Christmas. Is that the release date or the title?”
But the Labour leader swiftly moved on from the starter to the main course: the economic crisis visited on the country sparked by Truss’s mini-Budget, and as a result the £40bn her new chancellor needs to find through spending cuts and tax rises. The PM was reminded of her astounding declaration just seven days ago that there would “absolutely” be no squeeze on public funds. The Tory benches were deathly silent when Truss hit back, with a straight face, that “there has to be some reflection of economic reality from the party opposite”.
The battle lines over the next spending plan, which is due to be announced on 31 October, were drawn. Truss insisted the pensions triple lock would stay. “We have been clear in our manifesto that we will maintain the triple lock and I am completely committed to it – so is the Chancellor,” she insisted to Starmer, in an apparent bid to demonstrate Jeremy Hunt was not her boss.
But pressed by Tory backbencher John Baron, who got a more enthusiastic response than the PM, on whether benefits would rise with inflation, she was mute. A collision with One Nation Tories – and Labour – over her position not to keep them in alignment seems imminent.
And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then it seems Truss is quite a Peter Mandelson fan. “I’m a fighter not a quitter,” she said, quoting the architect of New Labour, after Starmer asked boldly: “Why is she still here?” It was a bold statement from a defiant and weak prime minister, not least because Mandelson did resign – twice.
Mandelson had an equally bold, and typically dry, response: “Unlike me, she’s not going to be winning Hartlepool at the next election – or even Hertsmere.” The Tories won Hertsmere in 2019, when the former party chairman Oliver Dowden got a huge 21,313 majority. However, given his party is trailing Labour by more than 30 points, Starmer could imagine the wild prospect of victory there at the next election.
Labour often wilted when Boris Johnson turned the tables on the opposition at PMQs by demanding how Starmer would govern. But in another clear sign that he and his party is the more powerful force in British politics, Starmer drew gleeful roars from his colleagues when, accused of having “no plan” for the economy, he replied: “She is asking me questions, because we’re the government in waiting and they are the opposition in waiting.”
If Truss does go out, it seems it will be with a bang. Having turned this afternoon’s vote on fracking into a confidence matter, she is effectively daring her MPs to back her or sack her. But if the ashen faces of Conservative MPs at today’s PMQs are anything to go by, all she is buying herself is time.