They say a week’s a long time in politics and boy, this has been one of those weeks.
Liz Truss was only confirmed in office six weeks ago. Two days later Queen Elizabeth II died and once again parliament set normal business aside. Thirty-eight days after he was made chancellor, three weeks after his truly incendiary statement to the Commons and following the party’s miserable conference, Kwasi Kwarteng was sacked. Jeremy Hunt’s arrival and prompt action has stemmed the tide but at the cost of almost everything in Kwarteng’s statement.
Needless to say all the chatter at Westminster is about the prime minister, now referred to in some quarters as PINO – prime minister in name only. I suspect by the time you read this she’ll still be in Downing Street and while it looks as if Hunt really will be calling the shots as he unwinds the policy on which Truss campaigned, the problem the party faces is how to bell the cat.
What is clear is there cannot be another election involving hustings and party members
What is absolutely clear is there cannot be another election involving hustings and party members. I have said before that giving party members the vote was one of the daftest things William Hague wished on the party, but what the party now knows to its cost is that while you might just get way with it in opposition, trying to conduct the process and run the government at the same time is simply impossible.
It is perfectly open to the 1922 Committee to change the rules, but unless Sir Graham Brady, its chairman, gets at least 100 letters of no confidence, the rules mean the PM can’t be challenged for a year. And the big question is of course who to replace her with. There are those who would recall Boris Johnson. They clearly have very short memories. Johnson was forced out of office because even those who had been among his most enthusiastic supporters recognised he had become completely toxic.
Rishi Sunak was runner-up to Truss, having won the largest number of votes from his fellow MPs, but I doubt he’d win this time.
Reaction to Hunt’s appointment and to what he’s already said and done has certainly been well received by his colleagues and the wider public. “At last, a grown-up in the room” seems to be the prevailing mood.
Personally, having voted for him when he ran against Johnson (who I would not give the job of running a bath, let alone the country) I’d be very happy to see Hunt in No 10, but although one or two Tory MPs have come out openly against Truss it looks as if PINO is likely to be the effective modus vivendi. She may well be in office for far longer than most people think, but as Norman Lamont said of John Major after the two fell out, she will be in office but not in power.
Flaw in the strategy
I personally supported every bit of the Kwarteng/Truss strategy but with one reservation.
However much the UK needs to stop being a low-growth, high-spend economy and start getting back to high growth and smaller government, you can’t cut taxes for the rich while not making the poor much better off, too. You can’t announce £48bn of cuts and not show how they will be funded.
Hunt certainly believes in the Truss/Kwarteng vision but he knows that you can’t buck the market. Having calmed things down he can get to grips with that steadier approach to growth.
And then there’s the small issue of the rising cost of borrowing. I haven’t even mentioned the impact of much higher mortgages on mainly young homeowners having to refinance this year. The massive rise in rates will surely see hundreds of thousands throwing the keys back having been wiped out. Neither they nor their parents are ever likely to forget that, come election time.
Steve Norris is chairman of Soho Estates and Future-Built