Liz Truss’s premiership is in a precarious position, and there is frenzied speculation about whether she will be forced from office in a matter of months or fight on to lead the Conservatives into the next general election.
While Tory MPs wargame how to slay or save her career, the prime minister is focused on preventing her radical new agenda being derailed by a fractured party.
Though unpredictable events – like the Queen’s death, Covid pandemic or the war in Ukraine – have a tendency to disrupt the best laid political plans, here are three possible scenarios for Truss’s future.
With the sound of Tory disunity still ringing in her ears after the party’s conference, Truss is forced to kowtow to all wings of her party – trying to please them all and failing. The “trickle-down economics” agenda proves too divisive and the prime minister faces the prospect of more looming defeats on key pieces of legislation, as she did on abolishing the 45p tax rate before being forced into a U-turn.
Criticism of the whips’ office mounts and the government is accused yet again of being tin-eared to Tory MPs’ concerns, while collective responsibility among the cabinet is repeatedly brushed aside as ministers air their concerns. Resignations and sackings only compound the sense of chaos.
Meanwhile, the cost of living crisis worsens with inflation continuing to grow and the Tories plunge to ever-lower depths in the opinion polls. This leaves MPs wringing their hands and plotting a way to save their seats at the next general election.If it is still two years away, some believe there is enough time for the Conservatives to recover – or at least avoid the worst performance by the party since 1945. They mull their options.
As rules set by the 1922 Committee of backbenchers mean Truss cannot face a confidence vote for her first 12 months in office, Tory rebels come up with ever-more inventive ways to force her to quit by Christmas. These include putting pressure on the committee to change the rules and allow a no-confidence vote – a nuclear move given this was never achieved even during the drawn-out demise of Boris Johnson or Theresa May. However, both were forced to fall on their swords in the first half of an electoral cycle. With the next election much closer, the “men in grey suits” may deem a change to the rules necessary to avoid the party consigning itself to electoral oblivion for several cycles.
Another option being touted by some Tories is to replicate the 2003-style vote of confidence held in Iain Duncan Smith. This would have the same effect of allowing MPs to show they had lost faith in their leader, but skirt round the rule forbidding a no-confidence vote.
Alternatively, the rebels set their sights on getting as many no-confidence letters submitted as possible. While the threshold of 10% of the parliamentary party is suspended until after Truss’s first year, they set their eyes on 178 – half the number of MPs. When this figure is achieved, it is clear that Truss does not have enough support to continue and she quits.
A leadership contest ensues, but it would need to be much shorter than the last one. Candidates could be told that they have to promise whichever of them ends up in second place during the parliamentary stage of the contest – as Truss did – will drop out, thereby circumventing the need to allow members a vote.
Emerging from a rocky first month in office, Truss’s conference speech with a commitment to fiscal discipline and traditional Conservative values earns her enough support to stave off an immediate rebellion. She continues pushing the growth agenda strongly, and many of the thorny issues that have plagued her so far are ironed out in time for the medium-term growth plan, due to be unveiled by the chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, in the next six weeks.
Tory MPs either convince themselves that bad poll ratings are natural midterm blues during a difficult winter period or decide they would be making the situation worse by constantly criticising Truss.
Though the cost of living bites, the financial support for people and businesses this winter is gratefully received, further boosting support for Truss. Meanwhile, the markets are unperturbed by commitments to offset huge debt costs with public spending cuts and “efficiency savings”.
Despite some backbenchers continuing to sound off against her, they do not feel aggrieved enough to go public. Truss makes it past Christmas and sets her eyes on further tax cuts, this time for lower earners.
She struggles on into the spring, but is still lagging in the polls and Tory activists warn the party faces another bruising set of local elections. With yet more councils swinging away from Conservative control in their shire heartlands and the south-west, the calls for her to quit become deafening – just as they did for Johnson after byelection losses this year.
Unmoved by her critics and harnessing the self-belief that has made her the only survivor in cabinet from the Cameron administration, Truss sticks to her conviction and comes out from conference recess fighting. She remains willing to be unpopular, believing that her plans will start to pay off – and they do.
Helped by a milder than expected winter that keeps heating costs down, inflation dips and a technical recession of two quarters of negative growth remains avoided. With the deadline to hold a general election not until January 2025, Truss has enough time to wait for the economy to start to grow again – with more housebuilding, bungs from business in investment zones and the 2.5% growth target looming into view.
The prime minister’s critics go quiet as she is able to claim her gamble has paid off and she becomes more powerful and able to be assertive: using the large majority inherited from the last election to push through radical policies – including the reinstatement of the 45p tax rate cut alongside plans to ease the tax burden on lower earners, too.
Truss’s growth agenda is warmly received and the polls recover given voters are still shunning alternatives put forward by the Labour leader, Keir Starmer. With the old leadership contest a distant memory and Rishi Sunak firmly on the backbenches, Truss remains at the helm of the party and leads it into the next general election.