Astonishing as it may sound to someone who has not paid attention to politics since about 2016, after little more than a month in office, a consensus is building that Liz Truss could be finished as prime minister. But who could succeed her as the Conservatives’ fifth prime minister since Brexit, and third since the 2019 general election?
The former chancellor might have been soundly rejected by Conservative members, but he was the top choice of the party’s MPs, and he has spent the last month, in effect, being able to silently show he was right.
In the leadership contest, Truss and her allies portrayed Sunak as the over-cautious voice of a discredited Treasury orthodoxy, whose warnings that it would be a mistake to cut too many taxes too soon would hold the country back. As it turned out, the financial markets – and now many voters – seem to think he was correct.
Sunak would have the post-Truss advantage of being viewed as a safe pair of fiscal hands. On the downside, he would lead the Conservatives through a cost of living crisis as a multimillionaire whose family minimised their tax through non-domiciled status, and who does not always seem a natural politician.
One compromise being mooted by some Tory backbenchers would be for Sunak to team up with Penny Mordaunt, to cover enough ideological bases that they would be crowned by MPs without needing another lengthy members’ vote.
In the famous words of David Cameron about Tony Blair, Mordaunt was the future once – but now she could be again, sooner than even she would have expected.
Mordaunt was the insurgent star of the summer’s leadership contest, initially expected to be a procession for Truss and Sunak. Largely untarnished by the Boris Johnson era and offering a slightly more consensual brand of Conservatism, Mordaunt was second to Sunak among MPs voting until the fifth and final round, when Truss overtook her.
Being made Commons leader under Truss might have seemed small reward, but it has allowed Mordaunt to maintain links with Tory MPs while largely standing apart from the policy wreckage of the mini-budget.
If she eschews the potential offer of a No 2 slot on a Sunak dream ticket, Mordaunt could prove popular again with Tory MPs, although some will worry she is as untested as Truss was.
Even as noted and public a fan of classical allusions as the former prime minister would, a couple of months ago, have struggled to construct a story as dramatic as one in which his return to No 10 is not only mooted but is just about possible.
Johnson’s building of an unwieldy but effective 2019 electoral coalition based on Brexit cake-ism and a notably statist approach to regional public spending projects brought him vast credit, and might look all the more appealing with Tory party poll numbers floating around the low 20 per cents.
He did have a core of supporters who felt a departure forced by a string of scandals inside Downing Street was unfair, and that number has surely grown as Tory MPs and members grasp for anything that could rescue the party from electoral oblivion.
It is, however, worth remembering that opposition parties would most likely relish facing an opponent who, however gifted a politician, is a tarnished figure disliked by much of the country who still faces a formal investigation into whether he misled parliament over lockdown-breaking parties.
If the former levelling up secretary turned backbench agitator did suddenly find himself in Downing Street, it would be a political renaissance reminiscent of that enjoyed by Johnson, a parallel Gove would surely enjoy.
The pair’s complex and often testy relationship did allow Gove to serve as a key member of Johnson’s cabinet, but he was unceremoniously sacked by the then PM in the dying days of his administration.
At the recent Conservative conference, Gove emerged as someone who officially billed himself as a supporter of Truss but nonetheless had many suggestions about ways she should amend her mini-budget.
Gove would, however, be something of an outsider for the job. For all his obvious political talents, he can be divisive, and not always popular with the public. Plus there is the other crucial question: does he really want to do it?
The defence secretary has been, much like Mordaunt, getting on quietly with the day job as the chaos rages around him, with the same arguable increase in reputation, even by default.
Wallace is a favourite among many Tory members and had been expected to be a contender to succeed Johnson, deciding not to do so for reasons that remain somewhat unclear.
But if he did go for it this time, Wallace would have the appeal, in contrast to Truss, of seeming refreshingly non-ideological and reassuring competent, even boring. That could take him far – even if fellow MPs might see Wallace as yet another hopeful bet.