Conservatives have two choices now, neither of them good. They can continue to intrigue against Liz Truss until they find a way to winkle her out of office, or they can attempt to pretend she is no longer really there and that her new chancellor Jeremy Hunt is really in charge.
Neither option is attractive either to the party or to the country, but the second choice has the appeal to some of her MPs of not requiring them to do anything yet. Truss is beyond a lame duck leader. With Hunt’s latest statement he has wiped out almost all of her growth strategy and policy platform. Her budget has ended up costing voters money and everyone knows it. She has no credibility with the electorate, colleagues or the markets. The upshot is that, quite brilliantly, the Conservatives have somehow contrived to have Rishi Sunak’s policies and Liz Truss’ presentation skills.
The Tories will not allow her to lead them into the next election, so the only question for them is when and how to remove her. The plotting has been ferocious but so far without clarity. There is no consensus on her replacement, on how to remove her and how to replace her without allowing party members another say. All can be resolved but so far nothing has. Tory MPs can and will defy calls for an immediate election once she is ousted — no one goes to the country when they stand at 19 per cent in the polls. But the moral argument for one will be very loud and powerful and could further weaken them when they do finally go the ballot box.
Some may therefore conclude that it is better to pretend that Hunt is really prime minister and see how far it takes them. Her appearances will be kept to a minimum, although prime minister’s questions will be a weekly blood sport.
The now unsackable Hunt will take charge of all financial and spending decisions and also the task of persuading his colleagues to support unpalatable cuts or tax rises. He is, as one ally said, chief executive to her chair.
Truss could try to limit herself to foreign policy issues until such time as the ship has been righted. This gives markets the impression of stability, Tories time to work out who they want instead and her backbench 1922 committee the time to rethink the rules for electing a leader. If Hunt is deemed to have done well, he might also be offered to voters as the man who saved the day. Few believe his denials of continued ambition. With all the alternatives unpalatable to one wing or another of the party, why not give Hunt some time? Few think the next election can be won, but the scale of the losses could be pared back.
None of this changes the basic facts, however. Truss has shattered the Tory reputation for economic competence and the pain will be felt by the country at large. Her disastrous press conference on Friday after sacking her chancellor has convinced MPs she is simply not up to the challenge.
What’s more, by limiting the energy rescue package to six months Hunt has adopted another Labour policy, one mocked by Truss only five days ago. Not only are the Tories losing their own reputation, they are burnishing Labour’s.
Its panicked response is, furthermore, proof of just how far the government has trashed the UK’s international standing, bringing the wrath of the bond markets and the scorn of the IMF down on the nation and putting a risk premium on British borrowing.
Hunt has at least acted to steady the ship, but significant challenges remain. There is still a large fiscal hole to fill and while the energy price issue may ease, it is not likely to have gone away by April. The Conservatives are now in damage limitation mode, both for the country and themselves, but undoing the havoc wrought by Truss’s economic illiteracy will add to their unpopularity.
For now the issue is how to restore economic stability and credibility. If that means pretending Truss is no longer in charge, then for a while it may be the more painless route. But it is unsustainable. Premiers still have too many powers for MPs to pretend she is not there and she has shown terrible judgment. Her colleagues fear every public appearance. How long can that continue?
It may be that things have gone too far and that enough Tory MPs have concluded it is better to take the pain now and spend two years trying to rebuild and at least limit the electoral damage. Allies of Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt and Ben Wallace are actively canvassing. The mood certainly seems to point this way.
But the choice is clear: play along for a while with Hunt or strike now. But even if they do choose to hold off for the time being, her premiership is done. She has lost all authority. The execution may be stayed but the verdict, and the sentence, are in.