Voters abandon Tories as faith in economic competence dives

<span>Photograph: Alberto Pezzali/AP</span>
Photograph: Alberto Pezzali/AP

Three-quarters of UK voters, including a staggering 71% of those who backed the Conservatives at the last general election, believe the prime minister, Liz Truss, and the chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, have “lost control” of the economy, according to a devastating poll for the Observer on the eve of the Tory conference.

The survey by Opinium – which also reveals that Labour has extended its lead by a massive 14 percentage points in the last week alone, from 5 points to 19 points, and that Truss’s ratings are now lower than Boris Johnson’s at the height of the Partygate scandal – comes as some Tory MPs are beginning to demand the new prime minister’s removal from No 10 after less than a month in office.

Other senior party figures are warning that the damage to the party’s reputation for economic management resulting from Kwarteng’s tax-cutting budget, is so serious that it will take many years to repair.

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Tory peer Gavin Barwell, a former MP and chief of staff to Theresa May, writing in Sunday’s Observer, says the Truss government “has thrown away the Conservative party’s reputation for sound management of the public finances” in its first month in office, adding that “it will take years to undo all the damage”.

In the last seven days the Tories have surrendered a narrow 1-point lead on the question of economic management and now trail Labour by 19 points after its successful conference in Liverpool last week.

On Saturday night, however, a defiant Truss showed no sign of backing down over her and Kwarteng’s £45bn programme of unfunded tax cuts, which panicked the markets, sent the pound spiralling downwards and raised the prospect of imminent further rises in interest rates.

Speaking before the Tory conference, which opens today in Birmingham, a defiant Truss said the economy needed a “reset” as she vowed to press on. She said: “We cannot continue on the current trajectory of managed decline. Instead, we must take a new direction. I will lead us down that path to a better future.”

In further dire news for the new prime minister, some Tory MPs are already in talks with Labour over how to block elements of the prime minister’s plans, with parliamentary rebellions looming over likely real-terms cuts to welfare, planning reforms and a new wave of austerity.

Tory MPs who won their “red wall” seats from Labour in 2019, thanks to pledges in the Conservative manifesto to invest in levelling up, are also demanding urgent meetings with Treasury ministers to ensure the agenda of tax cuts and massively increased borrowing will not lead to budgets for infrastructure in their northern and Midlands constituencies being slashed.

John Stevenson, chair of the Northern Research Group of Conservative MPs, said he supported the push for growth but insisted the levelling up agenda must not be sacrificed in the process. “Part of the growth agenda has to be about capital investment in infrastructure and skills. If they renege on that I would be deeply concerned,” Stevenson said.

Concerns were also voiced by Tories on Saturday after Simon Clarke, a key Truss ally and the levelling up secretary, signalled that welfare would be cut as part of plans to bring public spending back under control. James Cartlidge, MP for South Suffolk, said: “To be clear, cutting tax for top earners while reducing benefits in a cost of living crisis is unacceptable.”

Rachel Reeves, shadow chancellor
Rachel Reeves, shadow chancellor, has called for the OBR forecasts to be published on 7 October. Photograph: Nicola Tree/Getty Images

In a further potential humiliation for Truss and Kwarteng, cross-party plans are being drawn up to force the government to publish economic forecasts about the effects of its plans on public finances, produced by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). Ministers are currently planning to keep the forecasts secret for weeks.

Writing for the Observer, the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, says she has written to the chancellor to request that he publishes the OBR forecasts in full on 7 October.

“A failure to do so will suggest the government has something to hide, further undermining confidence in the UK as a safe place to invest,” she says.

The lack of parliamentary support for key elements of the mini-budget, as well as spending cuts signalled by ministers over recent days, have left senior Conservatives in the dark over how Downing Street hopes to guide the plans through parliament.

Some MPs regard Truss’s performance as so poor and the budget as so disastrous that they want her removed as leader.

One former minister thought she could be forced out even before Kwarteng makes his next fiscal statement at the end of November. “I think she is gone and they just don’t realise,” he said.

Conservative party rules state that a new leader is protected from a no-confidence vote for a year. However, leading rebels point out that neither Johnson or May were forced out by a confidence vote.

Tory MPs openly discussed all options last week in the face of record-low poll ratings, including a mass walkout of ministers or the suspension of party rules to remove Truss. Many MPs are waiting for MPs to return after the political conference season before considering their next move.

One former cabinet minister said: “It’s a matter of when she goes and we, the parliamentary party, need to seriously work on getting rid of her as soon as possible. That gives us more time before the next general election to forget this awful episode.”

Writing for the Observer, former Tory Treasury minister David Gauke says cutting public spending is not “credible”. “Reducing benefits during a cost of living crisis while cutting taxes of those with the highest incomes; reducing expenditure on the NHS during a winter that is likely to be particularly tough; substantially reducing real terms public sector pay at a time of full employment. None of these policies are sustainable.”

The Opinium survey found that 75% of voters thought the Tories had lost control of the economy including 71% of 2019 Conservative voters. Just 24% believed they were in control.