If you thought the prime minister’s local radio interviews were bad, wait for her speech to the Conservative Party conference on Wednesday. A fellow journalist suggested she might deliver it from behind a screen, as if on a witness protection scheme.
The party is in a state of suspended animation. It knows that something terrible has happened, but different parts of it are catching up with that realisation at different speeds, and then dealing with it in different ways.
One group of Conservative MPs can see the situation clearly. They know that Liz Truss is finished, and that their only hope of winning the next election is the Dallas scenario: get rid of Truss and replace her with Rishi Sunak, without consulting the party members, reverse the policies and pretend that the last few weeks have been a bad dream.
These MPs are not saying this to journalists, even privately, so we have to deduce their views from their silences, and from the views of former MPs. Paul Goodman, editor of Conservative Home, said: “I’ve been a Conservative MP and I know how they think.” He thinks that “if the polls don’t change” they face a choice between deposing Truss and losing by a landslide, and sticking with her and “going down to a 1993 Canada-style wipeout”, when the Progressive Conservatives were reduced from 156 to two seats.
Matthew Parris, another former MP, writes that making Sunak prime minister is no guarantee of avoiding “the almost unimaginable rout Trussonomics threatens”, but it would give the party a chance at the next election and “more backbenchers would keep their seats”.
Almost the only questions for Tory MPs, therefore, are when and how.
All else is distraction or preparation. Some Tory MPs are already mobilising against Truss’s policies. They will support a Labour attempt to use parliamentary devices to force the early publication of the Office for Budget Responsibility’s interim report, which will be delivered to the Treasury on Friday. They will vote for a Labour amendment to the finance bill to scrap the top rate tax cut. But that may not be until the new year, and changing some of the policies is no good while keeping a prime minister and chancellor who believe in them.
Some might think that sacking the chancellor might help. She won’t do it, and no it won’t.
Many Tory MPs are not ready to face the starkness of the choice before them. They will want to wait and see what happens to the opinion polls in the next few weeks and months, as Goodman suggested. But I think he and they know that they are likely to get worse, if anything, and that, even if world gas prices fall and the election is delayed to the last possible date in January 2025, Truss’s reputation cannot be recovered beyond a grudging admiration of her nerve.
Others will say they cannot change leader again, and that if they did there would have to be a general election. Yes, they can, and no, there wouldn’t. Many will ask if there is someone other than Sunak to whom they could turn. “There is so much hate for him among some Tory MPs for doing their dirty work for them and getting rid of Boris Johnson,” Professor Tim Bale, the supremely qualified Tory-watcher, told me. “I found that shocking if not surprising.”
But who else is there? Kemi Badenoch? Penny Mordaunt? Sunak has made some mistakes (the green card; the £10 fine for missing a GP appointment; losing to Liz Truss), but he was chancellor and he was right. He is not popular any more, but he is the only person apart from Keir Starmer whom the voters might trust, minimally, to lead the country through this crisis.
I doubt if Tory MPs have the unity and discipline to do it, but it is clear what they have to do. The how is secondary and the when is as soon as possible. If a majority of Tory MPs are determined to do it, it will happen. The rules of the 1922 Committee do not allow a challenge to a new leader in their first year, but, as Parris said, “The ’22 makes the rules and the ’22 can change them almost overnight.” This reflects the fundamental constitutional principle that a prime minister must command the confidence of the House of Commons, and that, if the prime minister does not command the confidence of the largest party in parliament, they must give way to someone who does.
It will be awkward, and the source of much unpleasantness, for Tory MPs to exclude party members from the election of Truss’s replacement, and that is another reason some of them will shy away from doing what is in their, their party’s and their country’s best interest. Someone – and that someone cannot be Sunak himself, obviously – will have to explain to the party that it is going to go back to the position before 1998 when MPs alone chose the party leader, because otherwise it may face again the problem of electing someone such as Truss, who does not have the support of a majority of the party’s MPs and therefore is in a weakened position in trying to lead a government.
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This plan depends on Sunak showing that he has the positive support of a majority of Tory MPs – a proposition that was never tested in the leadership campaign, because in the final round of MPs’ ballots, he won 38 per cent of their votes, against 32 per cent for Truss and 30 per cent for Mordaunt. I think he would have won if MPs had made the final choice between him and Truss, but no one can know and it may not be possible to construct such a majority months after the event. (There are those, such as Robert Buckland, the Welsh secretary, who switched from Sunak to Truss, saying: “I have decided that Liz Truss is the right person to take our country forward.”)
The danger for the Conservative Party is that too many MPs will decide that this is all too difficult, and that, if they wait, something will turn up, or an alternative candidate will present themselves. That is the line of least resistance and the most likely course for the next two years, but it will be bad for the country and it will end badly for them. They cannot say they weren’t warned.