Editor’s note: Rosa Prince is editor of The House magazine. She is a former Deputy Political Editor of the Daily Telegraph and author of the books “Theresa May: the enigmatic Prime Minister” “and “Comrade Corbyn: a highly unlikely coup.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinion on CNN.
“The Prime Minister is not under a desk.”
That says a lot about the current state of Liz Truss’ troubled premiership which This declaration by fellow Tory minister Penny Mordaunt on Monday afternoon was made, at least ostensibly, as a sign of support.
Just over a month after being crowned leader, about the best that can be said for the beleaguered Truss is that it isn’t cowering under the furniture of 10 Downing Street.
She is, however, very stuck in a wasteland of her own making; “in power but not in power” as it was said once of his 1990s predecessor, John Major; stripped of his authority, his political platform, his grip on his government and his party and, barring a miracle, the prospects of leading his party in the next general election.
On Wednesday, Truss faced a toast in his first session of Prime Minister’s Questions since the reversal of his flagship economic plan. His third PMQ, as is known, proved an ugly affair, with opposition MPs repeatedly calling for him to quit and – worse – cries of derision echoing in the House of Commons.
Hard to believe it’s been less than six weeks since Truss stepped out of a helicopter to “kiss hands” with Queen Elizabeth II (two days before the latter’s death at Balmoral Castle, Scotland), becoming the 56th Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
As she surveys the shattered wreckage of her premiership, Truss must wonder where it all went wrong – and how it all crumbled so quickly around her ears.
To recap: As the country observed 10 days of official mourning for the late Queen, Truss and his close ally and Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng drew up plans for a financial package dubbed the “mini-budget” but with consequences that would feel decidedly maxi.
Truss and Kwarteng’s prescription to invigorate the economy in a quest for growth through unfunded tax cuts unnerved markets, triggering a run on the pound and forcing the Bank of England to to intervene to prevent pension funds from collapsing.
Last week, Truss brought Kwarteng back from Washington DC, where he was attending an IMF meeting, to fire him because, as critics joked, he had followed its policies to the letter. In his place, she installed as Chancellor the experienced Jeremy Hunta candidate from the opposite moderate wing of the party, but trailed in eighth place behind her in the contest to replace Boris Johnson last summer.
On Monday, Hunt took steps to stabilize markets by airdrop the entire mini-budget, including a planned 1 pence cut in income tax, a rise in corporation tax and VAT-free shopping for tourists (Truss and Kwarteng had previously been forced to abandon plans to abandon the 45 pence higher tax rate).
It left Truss’ low-tax economic vision in tatters, a boil launched not just in the short term but, to the fury of those who had been in his camp, leaving enough scar tissue to warn politicians not to not repeat the experience for a generation.
Hunt’s statements did the trick in terms of settling the markets, but had the opposite effect on Truss’ authority. When she was late in Parliament on Monday to answer a question from Opposition Leader Keir Starmer, rumors swept Westminster that she was traveling to Buckingham Palace to tender her resignation to the King.
His absence meant that Mordaunt – who, by the way, had come third in the leadership race – was tasked with answering for him.
Mordaunt had the opportunity to ‘usefully’ respond to a Labor MP’s question about Truss’ fate by repeating the question – whether the Prime Minister was ‘curled up under his desk” – serve a dynamite clip to broadcasters and further undermine the Prime Minister’s authority.
And now ? There are two questions on the lips of every Tory MP: How long does she have? and how do we get it out?
The answer to the first question lies in the second. The latest rumor suggests that Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the powerful 1922 committee of backbenchers, has already agreed with Truss that she will be gone by the end of the week.
Another rumor whispers that she is refuse to movebetting that this divided parliamentary party, which has not proposed a natural successor to Johnson, will not be able to agree on a candidate to replace her.
In government for 12 years, the most successful party in British political history is indeed battle-scarred, divided into a multitude of factions and overhung with an air of bitterness.
With voters unlikely to agree to another nine-week leadership race in a time of economic crisis, the received wisdom is that any transfer of power should be a crowning achievement rather than a competition.
Polls show Tories trailing Labor rivals a record 36 pointsand with Truss appearing increasingly uncomfortable and isolated, the wicked spirits of the deputies may well have focused in recent days.
If the choice is between supporting a colleague they disdain and electoral oblivion with Truss, many may well find it expedient to hold their noses and do the former – particularly if their own seat is in jeopardy.
Some now give Truss a few days, others a week or two; few expect it to survive long enough to surpass george canning to avoid becoming the shortest serving prime minister in British history (in 1827, after just five months in office, he died suddenly of pneumonia).
For Truss, that would mean surviving another 80 days or so, which in today’s feverish atmosphere seems unlikely, if not quite impossible.
The man who came second to Truss, former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, has been very low key in recent days; strangely calm. Those close to him advise that after a bruising defeat to Truss he has no appetite to wield the knife himself, but suggest he might be persuaded to step in if the call was nearly unanimous.
Boris Johnson had a favorite expression to suggest when he was on maneuvers – an old chestnut he even returned to in his departure speech.
“If, like Cincinnatus, I were to be called from my plow, then obviously it would be wrong of me not to help,” he said in 2009a decade before ending up at number 10.
The reference was to Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, whom Livy recounts gave up being consul to return to his farm in the hills above Rome, only to return to rule again when the city was besieged.
Truss won’t be the only one wondering this week how long Sunak will be at his plow.