“The question is when — not if — she goes,” one minister remarked on Sunday, a sign that the mood against Liz Truss is hardening within the Conservative party despite her efforts to steady the government with the appointment of a new chancellor.
Tory MPs and ministers will be carefully watching the reaction of markets when they open on Monday following Truss’s decision to appoint Jeremy Hunt as chancellor and scrap her planned rise in corporation tax.
Hunt, who replaced Kwasi Kwarteng, is expected to go further and drop a 1p cut in the basic rate of income tax, another key plank of last month’s “mini” Budget, in a bid to calm markets and restore stability.
If the pound and gilt yields stabilise, senior members of the government said this would buy the prime minister time until October 31, when the chancellor will publish his medium-term fiscal plan. But few are in doubt that Truss’s reputation and authority have been shot.
One veteran Tory party official said that Truss may survive for weeks due to the lack of an obvious successor. “I give her longer than most others because there is no viable alternative. October 31 is key,” they said.
But a senior Whitehall official suggested that Truss had as little as two weeks left in Downing Street: “That will give the leadership contenders time to sort themselves out and figure out how to remove her without too much disruption.” Another civil servant said: “There is an awful lot of uncertainty.”
Tory MPs have spent the weekend in their constituencies being reminded of the disastrous mini-Budget that, they have said, trashed the party’s reputation for fiscal prudence. Some believe the prime minister may be gone within days if the markets continue to turn against her.
“If there was ever a reminder needed of how much we’ve messed this up, I’ve had it this weekend,” one MP said: “It’s very clear we’ve lost the country and I don’t see how we can regain it.”
Another longstanding MP said that their local Conservative association “wants her [Truss] gone and gone soon”.
Even at the most senior levels of government, there is a sense that the arrival of a new chancellor has not saved the prime minister. One cabinet minister said: “It’s over, but I’m not sure when. Perhaps this week, perhaps next. She could also survive a little longer in a caretaker role — effectively Jeremy Hunt carries on as CEO.”
Truss’s best hope for clinging on may be to stay on in the absence of a coherent plan to replace her. “It’s a mess,” one Tory MP said. “Some want her to go next week, some after the Budget reset, some think post Christmas.”
Two mechanisms exist through which Truss could be forced out of office: one led by the cabinet, the other by Tory MPs.
The prime minister appointed a cabinet of loyal ministers, which means the odds that they will force her departure are slim.
Instead, those seeking to oust Truss think it will come down to a large number of MPs calling for her to leave office. She is notionally protected by the rules of the 1922 committee of backbench MPs, which state that she cannot be challenged until September 2023, a year after she won the leadership contest.
But the 1922 committee exists as a conduit for backbench opinion and if more than a hundred MPs write letters of no confidence to its chair, Sir Graham Brady, then he is likely to examine a rule change.
George Osborne, the former Conservative chancellor, told Channel 4 “there will be a way” to force Truss’s exit. “Both Boris Johnson and Theresa May were removed outside of the rules of the 1922 committee. So I wouldn’t spend too much time worrying about those rules,” he said.
“I think the 1922 committee, or indeed a large number of MPs, can just force the issue. So water will find its way downhill,” Osborne added.
If Truss is removed, there is a chance the party will embark on another leadership race that could take weeks to decide at a time of economic crisis.
One former cabinet minister said: “It is utter madness if MPs think they can kick her out and have some kind of new leader installed without a general election. The public simply won’t accept another prime minister without a general election.”
Hunt is seen as the frontrunner to succeed Truss, thanks to his show of loyalty in steadying the government after Kwarteng’s departure and his calm media performances.
“I’ve always thought Jeremy is a boring technocrat, but that is probably what we need right now,” said one MP.
The coronation of a new Tory leader is the least likely of the possible scenarios, with senior Conservatives already lining up leadership bids should she be forced out.
Supporters of Rishi Sunak, former chancellor, have been phoning MPs this week to gauge the situation. “The conversations suggest they’re laying the groundwork for another run,” one said.
Several contenders from this summer’s Tory leadership contest have been sounded out over whether they would be ready to run if Truss goes.
Allies of Penny Mordaunt, leader of the House of Commons, have made it clear that she would not run on a joint ticket with Sunak but would contemplate standing again.
Suella Braverman, home secretary, is also hopeful of making a bid should Truss fall. “Suella is going for the ERG vote and hopes she can be the candidate to win over Truss supporters,” one minister said.
Ben Wallace, the defence secretary who is very popular with Tory activists but did not run in the contest to succeed Johnson, may stand as a “stability candidate” who can unite the party. “Ben is someone who can steady things,” one MP and Wallace ally said.
Despite the absence of an obvious replacement, however, few senior Tories believe Truss has long left in office. Andrew Mitchell, a former chief whip and a close ally of Hunt, suggested that Truss had less than a week to prove she can still govern.
“I think that we’ve got to see what happens in the next few days,” he told the BBC. “But, as I say, if she cannot do the job, if that’s the determination of the parliamentary party, then I’m afraid she will go.”