After a day of chaos and acrimony at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham on Monday, a longstanding ally of Liz Truss could not take any more. “I just went back to my hotel room and cried,” he said. “It’s a total disaster.”
The prime minister concluded the conference on Wednesday with a speech in which she admitted that “where there is change there is disruption”, but few Tory MPs anticipated the upheaval the election of their new leader on September 5 would cause.
A YouGov poll on Wednesday gave Truss a negative favourability rating of minus 59 — worse than anything Boris Johnson ever recorded at the height of the partygate scandal — while another survey put the Conservatives 38 points behind Labour in key seats in northern England.
Around the sweaty conference drinks parties, the chatter was less about the likelihood of a Tory defeat at the next general election but its scale. Some MPs fear a repeat of the 1997 annihilation at the hands of Labour’s Tony Blair.
In their darker moments, some Tories referred back to the Canadian Conservative wipeout in 1993. “I’ve been coming to these conferences for decades,” said one party donor. “It’s the worst since the 1970s.” One minister added: “It feels like we’ve already lost.”
Truss arrived in Birmingham on Saturday after a week of financial market turmoil following her debt-funded, tax-cutting “mini” Budget, only to be engulfed by the political fallout.
Instead of a “coronation” at the Conservative conference, Truss was forced to abandon her plan to axe the 45p top rate of income tax on Monday after a rebellion by her MPs. Suella Braverman, home secretary, accused the critics of organising a “coup”.
There followed cabinet infighting, a breakdown of party discipline and the threat of a further rebellion over cuts to welfare benefits. One Tory grandee, asked what the mood was among Conservative MPs, said bleakly: “Seeking hope.”
Truss ended the conference on a positive note, brushing off an interruption to her speech by Greenpeace activists to give a solid exposition of why she believes tax cuts and less red tape would boost economic growth.
David Monk, Conservative leader of Folkestone and Hythe district council in Kent, said after the speech that Truss appeared a “lady of iron will”, adding MPs should get behind their leader.
During the week, the prime minister remained upbeat, according to those who saw her. “It’s almost as if she doesn’t realise what’s going on outside,” said one Conservative MP. One ally of Truss said her calm in the face of the political storm was “spooky”.
But the past few days in Birmingham have exposed serious problems for Truss that she will need to address quickly, especially as Tory MPs return to Westminster next week in a restive mood. “Get a grip,” said the front page headline of the normally supportive Daily Mail.
The debacle over the 45p tax rate — Truss said it was right to embark on a U-turn and told the conference “I get it” — has left her and her chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng weakened.
Tory MPs now know they can push them around. “It’s like a supply teacher who comes in at the start of the year and immediately loses control of the class,” said one senior Conservative.
Michael Gove, the former cabinet minister, has emerged as a rebel leader. His contention is that Truss does not have a mandate from voters to reverse Johnson’s 2019 Tory election manifesto, which helped to win “red wall” seats in the north as well as wealthier constituencies in the south.
Nadine Dorries, former cabinet minister and a Truss backer, agreed, tweeting: “People voted in ‘19 on the policy promises we made (and for Boris). If we don’t want to deliver on the deal, the promises, we need a fresh mandate.”
The claim that Truss does not have a mandate for her rightwing economic policy — apart from the 57 per cent of Tory activists who voted for her as party leader out of 150,000 members — is a dangerous one for the new prime minister.
Even more ominous is the speed with which party discipline has broken down, a reflection of the fact that only 50 of the 357 Conservative MPs backed Truss in the first round of voting in the Tory leadership contest.
While Gove and Grant Shapps, former transport secretary, have been publicly critical of Truss this week, they reflect the views of a cadre of MPs who feel little loyalty towards their leader, who has awarded ministerial jobs to hardcore supporters.
“She needs to bring the party with her,” said one Conservative grandee. Truss has admitted she needs to win “hearts and minds” and hastily arranged meetings with critical Tory MPs in her Birmingham hotel suite.
But relations with even her closest supporters are strained. Some on the Tory right feel she has damaged the case for radical tax cuts because of the chaotic way the policy was handled.
Chris Philp, a Treasury minister close to Truss, has been left bruised by anonymous briefings that he was partly to blame for the fiasco over scrapping the 45p tax rate: the idea was one of about 30 contained in a policy paper he wrote during the Tory leadership contest.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the business secretary and another Truss supporter, was not impressed by a briefing by a Number 10 insider to the Financial Times that his ideas for labour market reform were “half-baked”.
Rees-Mogg is among those opposed to cutting benefits in real terms — an idea being considered by Truss. So too is Penny Mordaunt, leader of the House of Commons, who broke collective cabinet responsibility rules to back the case for increasing benefits in line with inflation.
There is unlikely to be any respite when Truss gets back to Westminster. To help fund her tax cuts, she could be forced to adopt a series of pro-growth measures that are likely to ignite further rebellions.
Tory MPs said their inboxes were full of angry letters from constituents about Truss’s plans to loosen planning rules to assist development in new investment zones, because the reform could damage wildlife habitats. Rebellions over plans to increase immigration and resume fracking for gas also loom.
Truss on Wednesday decried an “anti-growth coalition”, listing Labour, podcast presenters, think-tanks, and owners of north London town houses among its members. But the coming weeks could see many Conservative MPs joining its ranks.
“There will be no easy decisions over the next two years,” said one cabinet minister. The problem for Truss is the political capital that any new prime minister normally enjoys has already been squandered.
As winter approaches, many Britons are contending with a cost of living crisis, stretched public services, and — following Truss’s “mini” Budget that could further stoke interest rate rises — the prospect of a big jump in mortgage payments. “Interest rates were going up anyway,” said one gloomy Tory MP. “The problem is that now we’re going to get all the blame.”
Truss will hope her party will now unite behind her. But inevitably calls for her to quit will grow, unless she can grip the political situation and prove that her economic plan will generate growth.
Some believe her political condition is already terminal but it could be a long decline. “PMs usually take longer than you think to die,” said one former cabinet minister.
For others, a certain fatalism has set in. “Either it will be fine or we’re screwed,” said another cabinet minister, staring into a glass of warm champagne.