Week-in-Review: As the post-Truss era beckons, do not expect Conservative unity to return

After 45 days filled with rebellions, reshuffles, and resignations many Conservative MPs now have what they want: we are now entering an era post Trumpss politics.

The sheer brevity of Truss’ tenure as PM is a consequence of the boldness and stubbornness of her fiscal regime. Ultimately, Truss only lasted a few days longer than the disastrous “mini-budget” which precipitated her downfall. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt canceled its key proposals earlier this week.

But the political chaos is not over.

Truss’ successor will be announced on 28 October after a short, sharp leadership contest. Sir Graham Brady, speaking outside the House of Commons confirmed that each candidate will need 100 nominations by Monday afternoon.


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This gives leaders hopefuls only three days to prepare and eight to campaign.

Brady ripped up the party’s leadership election processes to avoid a bitter and protracted contest among many candidates — but this could backfire dramatically. A shorter contest may only be used to prolong post-election arguments. And it is far from clear whether this schedule allows for enough time for any “unity candidate” or platform to emerge.

Truss was not the leader in the effort to get rid. There was no prime mover, no Boris Johnson or Michael Heseltine wielding a knife — meaning each leadership hopeful enters the race at a standing start.

Commentators and MPs are unsure about the direction of post-Truss’ political momentum. This is creating a vicious leadership contest. The contest may be won, but then there’s the challenge of leading a deeply divided Conservative Party.

Indeed, that Truss’ replacement will be the UK’s fifth prime minister since the Conservatives returned to power 12 years ago is a symptom of deep and enduring instability within party ranks.

Throughout the week, Sunak supporters made it clear to their parliamentary colleagues privately that Truss can only be succeeded by the former chancellor.

Sunak’s pitch will not be much-changed from his last outing, when he failed to amass enough activist votes to see off Liz Truss (60,399 to 81,326). Sunak’s views on the Covid crisis will inform any soundings. He is the chancellor that led the economy through it and can do so on the cost-of-living one.

Sunak’s supporters consider him to be fiscally savvy, an economist manager, and a treasury orthodoxy made flesh. He is everything the country and the conservative party would need.

Sunak, however, is not for everyone. You can also responsible. Truss’ decision to axe the 1.25 percentage point increase in national insurance payments remains popular and was untouched by Hunt this week. As the brain behind the idea to increase NI in Cabinet and its champion in last month’s leadership election, Sunak will once again find himself in a difficult position on tax.

Sunak also suffers from the perception that he belongs to one side of parliamentary party. Influential Johnson loyalists would be unable to unite around any policy programme laid out by what they label as a “socialist” and “backstabber-in-chief”.

If Rishi Sunak ultimately does triumph, potentially without the need to consult the party membership, it would not be beyond the conservatives’s right flank to cry “coup”. This is not a recipe for party unity or a formula to ensure sustainable governance.

There has been a lot of speculation over the past few weeks about a possible Sunak-Mordaunt combination ticket.

However, both are possible The Times Bloomberg reported this week that an approach from team Mordaunt to Sunak’s camp was rebuffed. The former chancellor apparently was not content to be a junior partner on the joint ticket.  He is reportedly still available for the job.

A stich-together Cabinet made up of all the talents: Trussites, Johnsonians and one-nationers is increasingly regarded as a non-starter. Brady’s fast-tracked leadership campaign will place a timer on any new “joint ticket” negotiations. Despite the lackluster political will, there is simply too little time.

For now, Sunak and Mordaunt won’t be working together.

Mordaunt’s prime ministerial performance in the commons on Monday will have bolstered her chances as a single ticket hopeful. As an unrelenting, well-practised Labour-basher, Mordaunt will flaunt her credentials as a potential “unifier-in-chief”.

However, the commons leader was third in the summer leadership race. It is not clear whether she is now more prepared for the political sniping that sunk her campaign the last time.

In the Summer, Mourdant was criticised for a lack of detailed policy experience and gravitas — a fact not necessarily improved by her stay as leader of the house under Truss. And as commons leader, Mourdant was supportive of the “mini budget”, raising questions over whether she has the economic skill to guide the country through the current storm.

Also, unlike so many others, Mordaunt also did not resign as a minister during the fallout of the “Pincher affair” which sunk Boris Johnson.

Boris Johnson has already secured a number of backers for his run, including Nadine Dorries and Nadine Bristow, James Duddridge and Nadine Dorries.

But notwithstanding the support of a select set of loyalists, the circumstances of Johnson’s downfall would surely make it impossible for the ex-PM to govern again. In total, 62 members of his government resigned, including “big beasts” Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak. Johnson’s supporters are enthusiastic and noisy, but the 100 MP threshold is a significant ceiling and may prove too big a hurdle for the controversial former prime minister.

Even if Johnson decides not to run, his position among party activists will be crucial. Johnson may be divisive, however, it is not impossible to ignore his influence within a small corner of the conservative party parliamentary party.

Boris could choose to be Kingmaker, even if he cannot be King.

If Badenoch could sweep up Johnson loyalists as well as former Truss supporters, she would be able to surpass the 100 MP threshold. The international trade secretary amassed 59 MPs in her Summer showing — far exceeding expectations.

Badenoch might style herself as the “stop-Rishi” candidate, which was crucial to Truss’ appeal in the summer’s election.

Furthermore, Kemi’s culture warrior credentials make her an activist favourite, meaning if the contest makes it to the party vote, the international trade secretary could cause someone like Sunak or Mordaunt serious problems.

Purist activists may find this clear-headed conservatism appealing, but one nation parliamentarians label it reactionary. Personal victory for the controversial international trade secretary may again come at the cost of continued inter-party squabbling, especially is she stresses her “stop-Rishi” credentials. Badenoch is certainly no “unity candidate”.

Ben Wallace would have the best chance to unite the party out of all the possible candidates. The defence secretary is not associated with any ideological faction and he chose to support Truss in the Summer as a bid for the defence brief.

At the time of writing, however, the smart money seems to suggest that Mr Wallace does NOT want the job. Despite being the favourite of both the parliamentary party as well as the grassroots, he declined the opportunity to run again. Indeed, speaking to The Times this week, Wallace said: “I want to be the secretary of state for defence until I finish. I love what I do, and there’s more to do. I want the prime minister to be the prime minister and I want to do this job.”

Other potential runners/riders include ERG darling Suella Brverman, Justice Secretary Brandon Lewis, Grant Shapps, Tom Tugenhat, and the new home secretary Grant Shapps. These candidates lack the political clout necessary to win 100 MPs or even the chance to unite the party.

With leadership hopefuls incapable or unwilling to agree on a “unity candidate”, a smooth transition into post-Truss politics appears more and more unlikely.

The potential winner is likely to be one from Sunak, Mordaunt, Badenoch or Badenoch. Boris Johnson actually returning to the UK at 500mph to take part in the contest, the wounds from the last leadership race are set to resurface.

In the longer term, Brady’s shortened contest could potentially give way to months of unrelenting party management and rebuilding — all at a time of heightened economic insecurity.

Plainly, the Conservative party’s problems do not stop and end with Liz Truss.