Liz Truss has not (yet) been ousted. Her official residence remains No 10 Downing Street and her title Prime Minister. Yet, extraordinarily, this afternoon her one-time leadership rival and now leader of the House of Commons leader, Penny Mordaunt, had to clarify that Truss was not “hiding under a desk” and that “there has not been a coup”.
Truss has barely been seen or heard in public since her excruciating eight-minute press conference last Friday (14 October), which made her appear more like a hostage than a leader in control of events. Jeremy Hunt – appointed Chancellor and, it seems, as de facto PM – declared in a video address this morning that “almost all” of the tax cuts in Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget last month would be abandoned. The coup, it seems, is all but complete, but the Tory ranks are riven with chaos and there are several contenders for the party leadership and many, many competing agendas.
Seizing the opportunity to exploit the chaos, Labour demanded that Truss answer an urgent question on the economy in parliament before Hunt’s statement to MPs this afternoon. The request was granted by Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons Speaker, but Truss did not show up to answer it. While a prime minister wouldn’t be expected to jump to the dispatch box every time the opposition is granted an urgent question, that Truss refused to do so this time underlined to Keir Starmer and his allies that she is now in office but not in power.
Mordaunt was sent to the Commons in Truss’s place. Roars of laughter erupted when Mordaunt said that Truss had been “detained on urgent business” and was “not under a desk”.
Starmer, who can credibly claim to be a prime minister in waiting as the polls indicate a 1997-style landslide for Labour, responded: “So, now it’s time for leaders to lead. But where is the Prime Minister? Hiding away, dodging questions, scared of her own shadow, the lady’s not for turning up.”
Mordaunt tried to explain away Truss’s absence by saying that her decision to sack Kwarteng, a close ally, as chancellor took “great personal courage” and that she was “acting in the national interest”. The reality, of course, is that Truss was forced into the move. She is now desperately trying to reassure Conservative MPs and warning that her removal would trigger further market turmoil.
But her rivals are circling, and in growing numbers, with dozens of letters calling for her removal thought to have been submitted to the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, which administers votes of confidence and leadership elections. Tonight, Truss will meet with the One Nation caucus of Tory MPs for what some see as her last roll of the dice.
[See also: Will there be an early election?]