As country prepares for third PM in eight weeks, here’s how things reached breaking point for Tories.
The UK is heading for its third prime minister in eight weeks. In the 45 days that Liz Truss has been in power, the country has been rocked by the death of Queen Elizabeth II and suffered an economic crisis exacerbated by the PM’s first moves, with a series of senior ministers appointed then sacked. If you have been watching UK politics only distantly, here is a catch-up on what has been happening.
Why did Liz Truss resign after only 45 days?
Truss became prime minister on 6 September after a summer campaigning to win the leadership of her Conservative party on a low-tax, high-growth policy platform. Within a couple of days of Truss taking office, the Queen died and politics paused for nearly two weeks of official mourning.
When it resumed, Truss’s then chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, announced a package of tax changes including abolishing the highest rate of income tax for the rich. Unusually for the UK, it did not come with a corresponding analysis from the independent Office for Budget Responsibility. That, along with the tax cuts being funded by a huge rise in borrowing, spooked the markets. The pound crashed, the UK’s cost of borrowing rose, and mortgage interest rates rose amid already soaring inflation. The Bank of England had to spend billions to stabilise the pensions market.
After days of Truss insisting her budget was the right course, she made a U-turn on business taxes, and Kwarteng flew back early from an International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington to find himself sacked on arrival. Truss called a press conference to explain her decisions and … didn’t. The televised appearance lasted barely eight minutes, and she took only four questions before abruptly departing. She essentially said: I still agree with my policies, but I’ve sacked my finance minister because he announced them, and the market didn’t like them.
Truss then appointed Jeremy Hunt, who had previously endured heavy criticism for a stint as health secretary (with oversight of the NHS), as the new finance minister. On Monday he announced that almost every single aspect of Truss’s financial programme was to be ripped up, while she sat mutely in parliament beside him, leading people to call him the “de facto prime minister”, and say that she was “in office, but not in power”.
Before his announcement, the opposition Labour party had tabled a question for Truss to explain sacking Kwarteng. Bizarrely, she sent a deputy, Penny Mordaunt – a leadership rival and a possibility for the new PM – to answer on her behalf. Mordaunt said there were very good reasons why Truss could not be there to answer in person – only for Truss to then arrive, but let Mordaunt carry on speaking on her behalf. By now a national newspaper was running a live YouTube video stream asking what would last longer, Truss as PM, or a supermarket lettuce.
Truss tried to rectify this with a TV interview in which she admitted there had been mistakes, but she had fixed them. This was news to everybody facing the prospect of higher mortgages.
With her authority draining away, Truss put up a better than expected performance in the weekly prime minister’s questions in parliament on Wednesday, but then in a bombshell development her home secretary, Suella Braverman, the equivalent of an interior minister, was sacked for sharing a secret government document on a private phone.
Braverman had run for leader against Truss, and had already been publicly criticising the government she was part of. On Tuesday she had launched a widely mocked rant against protesters as “tofu-eating wokerati”. Her Wednesday letter of departure was explosive, admitting she made a mistake, but laying down a gauntlet to Truss to resign over her own mistakes.
Then on Wednesday night there was a vote in parliament with the opposition party trying to ban fracking. The Conservatives had themselves promised not to reintroduce fracking in their last election manifesto, but Truss had wanted to relax the restriction. So her MPs were effectively instructed to vote in favour of fracking, as a matter of confidence in the government, partially just to stop the opposition claiming a victory in parliamentary procedure. That led to ugly scenes in parliament as some witnesses claimed MPs were seen being bullied into voting. Party discipline had almost entirely collapsed, with MPs giving emotional and angry interviews on TV about the state the party was in and calling on Truss to quit.
We have not even touched upon the minister sacked over allegations of inappropriate behaviour at the party conference, an emerging lobbying scandal around Truss’s chief of staff, Mark Fullbrook, who was also questioned as a witness as part of an FBI inquiry and had to U-turn on being paid as a private contractor, and the adviser suspended for briefing out to the media that one of Truss’s rivals was “shit”.
So now there will be a general election, right?
Not so fast. Their poll numbers are so bad that Conservatives know if they called an election now they would be facing a Canada-style Conservative wipeout. Instead they will just pick a new leader.
This process normally takes weeks but the party is trying to condense it into the space of a few days. Those running to be leader need to get the backing of at least 100 MPs, meaning there can be three candidates at most.
Once that is whittled down to two, party members will get an online vote and a new PM should be in place by 28 October. If only one candidate reaches the 100 threshold they will automatically become the new leader and prime minister.
How did the Conservatives get to this point?
Although they have been in power since 2010, their government has been characterised by instability since the 2015 election. After winning it, the then prime minister, David Cameron, held a referendum on the UK leaving the EU in 2016, mostly to try to silence the Eurosceptic wing of his party. However, leave won, Cameron resigned, and the party turned to Theresa May as a boring but “strong and stable” pair of hands to steer the UK through Brexit.
Her government ended up paralysed by party infighting about what type of Brexit to pursue, and she did not have enough of a majority in parliament to force through her vision. Her solution? Call a “back me or sack me election” in 2017, which delivered her even less of a mandate, and she ultimately stepped down in favour of Boris Johnson.
Johnson got his Brexit deal over the line – even though the party has subsequently tried to disavow elements of it, such as how the trade border with Ireland works. Johnson was then beset by the Covid pandemic, and his well-known laissez-faire attitude to following rules led to a series of scandals, including being fined for breaking his own Covid rules, before eventually two senior ministers resigned in short succession and triggered the collapse of Johnson’s authority and the leadership contest that delivered … Truss.