Tory jitters about Truss: ‘She will just come across as Boris without the charm’

<span>Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA</span>
Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA

With just two weeks to go before Liz Truss is expected to be crowned as the new Tory leader and prime minister, a large number of Conservative MPs are suffering a serious bout of the jitters about their own futures this weekend.

One reason is that while a clear majority of the 150,000 or so members of the Tory party, who have the ultimate say in deciding the next PM, are opting for Truss over Rishi Sunak, voters out in the country seem distinctly unimpressed by the prospect of the current foreign secretary moving into No 10.

Related: Labour surges as Tory fears grow over Truss’s tax cut agenda

Team Truss may be metaphorically measuring up the Downing Street curtains – but current polling trends of the wider electorate, as opposed to the tiny Tory “selectorate”, suggest her stay there could be even shorter than that of her recently ousted predecessor.

“It is quite worrying,” says a former minister. “Members are going one way with Liz, the country at large, the other.”

This weekend’s poll by Opinium for the Observer gives Labour its biggest lead in many months. It also shows that Truss has, in the last fortnight, slipped well behind Keir Starmer when voters are asked who would make the best prime minister.

Starmer appears to have finally struck a chord with the electorate with his plan, first revealed in last Sunday’s Observer, to freeze energy prices this autumn. Two weeks ago, Truss had a one-point lead over Starmer in the “best PM” stakes. Today she is eight points behind him.

On Saturday, Michael Gove joined other senior Conservatives such as Dominic Raab and Michael Howard in denouncing Truss’s core economic policy as a “holiday from reality”, as he came out instead for Sunak. The former Tory chancellor Ken Clarke, interviewed in the Observer New Review, dismisses Truss’s tax plans as “nonsense” and says they will stoke inflation at the worst possible time.

Labour now senses one of those rare political turning points, the potential beginning of the end of its 12-year period in opposition. Its strategists say the last week has been the best since Starmer became leader. A senior member of the Starmer inner circle told the Observer that “this was a week in which political battle lines were drawn – most obviously for the coming weeks but more subtly for the years to come.”

The likes of Gove seem to sense the same movement of what John Prescott once described as the political “tectonic plates”. He and Raab appear to believe that Truss has catastrophically failed to grasp both the extent of the cost of living crisis and the dire political consequences for her party of inaction to address it.

Gove said yesterday in an article for the Times that “the answer to the cost of living crisis cannot be simply to reject further ‘handouts’ and cut tax” – milder than Raab’s attack on her economic policies as an “electoral suicide note” – but a damning condemnation nonetheless.

It is not just Labour that now feels Truss will be good news for the party. The Liberal Democrats have formed a new “Truss attack unit” believing they can repeat a recent string of byelection victories over the Tories in scores of blue wall seats at the next general election, in those constituencies where they are the main challengers to the Conservatives.

Notably, in many of these seats – including Raab’s in Esher and Walton where the deputy PM had a majority of just 2,743 over the Lib Dems in 2019 – the incumbent MPs are coming out in support of Sunak, not Truss.

The new Lib Dem unit has already begun drafting Truss attack ads for distribution in these areas, focusing on her failure to help people with soaring energy bills and “blue on blue” clashes in the leadership contest.

The Lib Dems believe liberal Tories will also dislike Truss’s criticisms of “woke” civil servants, her conversion to the “benefits of Brexit” having been a Remainer at the 2016 referendum, and her new-found green scepticism, including a recently stated dislike of solar panels in rural areas.

Parts of the country where the Lib Dem attack unit will focus are the Home Counties – Surrey, Sussex, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Kent – as well as seats further afield in Devon and Shropshire.

Organisations backing cooperation between progressive parties to oust the Tories sense that Truss offers real opportunities. Neal Lawson, spokesman for the Win as One campaign, which encourages progressive alliances on the left, said: “Many Tory seats in the blue wall are on a knife edge and a rightwing Truss leadership could push them over the edge. This is specially the case where there are more progressive voters who could well align to back the best placed non-Tory if they shift further to the right.”

Among more liberal, often Remainer, one nation Tories who are now backing Sunak there are two remaining sources of hope. The first is that polls of Tory members which have given Truss huge leads over recent days somehow turn out to have been wrong. The Sunak camp seems sincerely to believe that the evidence from the ground shows the race to be far tighter than these polls of members suggest. One cabinet minister backing Sunak said he believed the former chancellor still had a one in three chance of winning and that the trend was clearly in Sunak’s direction.

The other hope is that if Truss does win, she will dump much of the agenda outlined in her campaign, and cast aside the rightwing supporters she is said to be considering appointing to high positions.

A former cabinet minister who is backing Sunak said the test would be what Truss does when she gets into Downing Street, not what she has said on the campaign trail. “If she carries on with full-on culture wars and the anti-woke stuff, as well as the economic stuff, she will just come across as Boris without the charm,” he said. “Then she will turn off people in the blue wall. If she appoints Nadine Dorries and John Redwood to top jobs people will just drift away.

“The sensible thing to do is what most successful US presidents have done, which is to campaign for your base, and then govern from the centre. She would be very well advised to do that. The trouble is no one seems know whether she will. That is the worry.”