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

After 45 days of rebellions, reshuffles and resignations, many Conservative MPs now have their wish: we are entering an era of post-Truss 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. Its keys proposals were scrapped earlier this week by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt.

But the political turmoil is far from over.

Truss’ successor will be announced on 28 October after a short, sharp leadership contest. Speaking outside the House of Commons, Sir Graham Brady confirmed that each candidate will need 100 nominations before 2pm on Monday.

This gives leadership hopefuls just three days to prepare and eight days 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 shortened contest may only serve to extend post-election arguments. And it is far from clear whether this schedule allows for enough time for any “unity candidate” or platform to emerge.

Moreover, the attempt to get rid of Truss was essentially leaderless. 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.

With commentators and MPs alike unsure where the post-Truss political momentum lies, a potentially vicious leadership contest is building. And winning the contest may end up being the easy part,for then there is the matter 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.

Over the course of this week, Sunak supporters were already privately making the case to parliamentary colleagues that only the former chancellor can succeed Truss as prime minister.

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). Any soundings from Sunak will be based on the view that he was the chancellor who steered the economy through the Covid crisis and can do the same on the cost of living one.

For his proponents, Sunak is fiscally savvy, an economic managerialist and treasury orthodoxy made flesh: everything the country, and the conservative party, would appear to need.

But for his detractors, Sunak is too 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.

Furthermore, Sunak suffers from the view that he occupies one side of the 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 neither a recipe for party unity nor a formula for sustainable governance.

Over the past few weeks, there has been plenty of speculation surrounding a potential Sunak-Mordaunt joint ticket.

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

A stitched-together Cabinet of all the talents: Johnsonians, Trussites and one nationers, is viewed increasingly as a non-starter. Brady’s fast-tracked leadership campaign will place a timer on any new “joint ticket” negotiations. Notwithstanding the lack of political will, there simply is not enough time.

Both Sunak and Mordaunt will be going it alone for now.

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”.

But the commons leader of course came third in the Summer leadership race, and it is unclear whether she is now better prepared for the political sniping which sunk her campaign last time around.

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.

Considering a run himself, Boris Johnson already has a number of declared backers, including but not limited to: Paul Bristow, James Duddridge, Nadine Dorries, Brendan Clarke-Smith, Michael Fabricant and Stephen McPartland.

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.

But even if Johnson chooses against running, his positioning among party activists and MPs will be crucial. Johnson may be divisive, but you cannot deny his influence among a slightly cultish corner of the conservative parliamentary party.

If Boris cannot be King, he may choose to play Kingmaker and throw his support behind an ideological ally: someone, potentially, like Kemi Badenoch.

Were Badenoch able to sweep up Johnson loyalists and erstwhile Truss supporters, she could blast past 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.

But what comes across as clear-headed conservatism to purist activists is condemned as reactionary by one nation parliamentarians. 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”.

Of all the potential candidates, it is Ben Wallace who would stand the best chance of uniting the party. The defence secretary is not identified with an ideological faction, and he only chose to back Truss late on in the Summer in what was roundly viewed as a bid to retain the defence brief.

But at the time of writing, the smart money suggests that Mr Wallace does not want the job. He turned down the chance to run on the last occasion, despite being the favourite among both the parliamentary party and the grassroots. Indeed, speaking to The Times this week, Wallace said: “I want to be the secretary of state for defence until I finish. I love the job I do and we have more to do. I want the prime minister to be the prime minister and I want to do this job.”

Other potential runners and riders include: ERG darling Suella Braverman, Justice secretary Brandon Lewis, the new home secretary Grant Shapps and security minister Tom Tugenhat. But such candidates do not possess the political clout to get close to 100 MPs, let alone stand the chance of uniting 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.

With the potential winner appearing to be one of Sunak, Mordaunt, or Badenoch, and with Boris Johnson literally returning to the UK at 500 mph to meddle in the contest,the wounds of the last leadership race threaten to remerge dramatically.

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.