When allies assure them that a minister enjoys the prime minister’s “total trust”, that is usually the beginning of the end. Just hours after Secretary of State for Trade, Greg Hands, declared Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng sacrosanct, he was dismissed. In the early afternoon, Prime Minister Liz Truss announced that Jeremy Hunt would take over from Kwarteng.
Former Health Secretary Hunt had run for the party leadership himself from the Tories and then, after his early exit, supported Truss’s last rival Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. That shows how difficult it will be for Truss to explain her tax change. Because Kwarteng’s program was also hers.
The crisis that triggered his budget speech has long since become a crisis for the entire government and its boss. Just five weeks after taking office, Westminster is debating whether to overthrow Truss. Although the government recently gave in to the widespread protests about the “mini-budget” and withdrew an important part – the announced reduction in the top tax rate – it remains on the defensive. The ranks of their own parliamentary group are currently demanding that the withdrawal of the corporate tax increase be removed from the program. Soon, “almost nothing will remain” of the government’s growth plan, a Tory was quoted as saying.
Markets are already firmly assuming that the government will abandon further economic and fiscal targets – at least that is how the recovery in the area of currencies and government bonds is being interpreted. Many Tories believe this alone will not be enough to calm things down – and not even a new Chancellor of the Exchequer can save the Prime Minister’s skin. They just want to replace Truss as quickly as possible and bring the fifth Tory prime minister into office in six and a half years.
Just ten days ago, at the party conference in Birmingham, the putschists seemed to be in the minority. For every behind-the-scenes campaign for the ouster of the new prime minister, there were two who warned that the Tories would be a laughingstock if the winner of a months-long selection process was dismantled so early. In the meantime, almost only members of the cabinet, who fear for their posts, speak of the “madness” of a change in leadership. Most MEPs seem to have split into two camps. One wants to wait and see whether the “medium-term financial plan” expected for the end of the month contains enough corrections to turn the mood around. The other camp wants to take action right away.
There is little sympathy for another “leadership contest” involving party members, which would again lead the Tories to a crucial test within the party. Instead, a faction coup is discussed, in which Truss would be replaced with a consensus candidate. The 1922 Committee, which is responsible for such maneuvers, says that according to the statutes, a vote of no confidence can take place in September 2023 at the earliest. But statutes, it is also said, can be changed. The main question is another: who could be the consensus candidate?
It is unlikely that Boris Johnson will be pulled out of a hat again, but it cannot be ruled out. The memories of the heated debates surrounding his departure are still fresh, and an investigative committee is still awaiting him. In addition, Johnson is said to be in financial difficulties and wants to make money as a speaker for a while. His last appearance in America is said to have been paid around 130,000 euros. For the time being, he has had speculations about a return to office dispelled by companions.
According to newspaper reports, MPs are exploring whether Truss’ adversary Rishi Sunak would make himself available. There is also talk of bringing Penny Mordaunt, who came third in the faction’s successor election, on board. Which of the two would then become prime minister and which would become chancellor of the exchequer is just as open as the question of whether they would be willing to take over the party and the government in such a situation. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, who had already refrained from running for Johnson’s successor even though he had been given a chance, would probably ask himself this question. At that time the Labor Party led the polls by seven percentage points ahead of the Conservatives, now it is up to 30 percentage points.