Liz Truss announced on Thursday she was quitting No 10 after a calamitous 45 days in office, triggering a Tory leadership contest, with Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt and Boris Johnson battling it out to become Britain’s next prime minister.
At a lectern outside Downing Street during another tumultuous day, Truss admitted that she could not deliver the radical economic mandate on which she was elected by Conservative members.
She will be the shortest-serving UK prime minister ever, having presided over what has been one of the most politically turbulent and economically damaging periods in modern history.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, led calls for an immediate general election, arguing it was untenable for the Conservatives to appoint yet another premier without a fresh mandate. Instead, Tory grandees set a deadline of Friday 28 October for the new contest to be completed.
The rivals to succeed Truss immediately embarked on urgent campaigns to sign up at least 100 Tory MPs by Monday afternoon to get on the ballot paper, with Sunak quickly gathering momentum to become the early frontrunner.
Johnson was said by MPs to be considering another tilt at the job, despite quitting in disgrace in July following a series of scandals that left his personal integrity in tatters. Friends said he was planning to return early from a Caribbean holiday to gather support.
Tory insiders claimed that, although popular with party members, Johnson was a deeply divisive figure among MPs and would struggle to reach the required threshold for nominations.
“The brutal truth for Boris is that his support has not shifted at all since he was ousted. I can’t see him getting more than 60 votes. He’s done,” said one. However, his closest allies were already canvassing Tory MPs, telling them he was responsible for their 80-seat majority at the last general election. Were Johnson to make into the final run-off, he is likely to be the favourite among party members.
It was reported on Thursday night that the former prime minster was planning on reaching out to Sunak, his former chancellor, in a bid to secure enough nominations to make the final ballot.
Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the Commons who came third last time round, could also make the first cut unless the right of the party backs one of their own instead. If only one candidate reaches the 100-MP threshold on Monday, then they will automatically take over.
Jeremy Hunt, the new chancellor who buried Truss’s economic strategy with a series of humiliating U-turns after he took over from the sacked Kwasi Kwarteng, ruled himself out of standing, although is expected to stay in post if Sunak or Mordaunt win, in an attempt to steady the markets.
Foreign secretary James Cleverly, Tory heavyweight Michael Gove and centrist Tom Tugendhat have all said they will not stand.
Treasury sources said they were still working towards holding the next fiscal statement, which will set out spending plans, on 31 October. However, the new prime minister may delay that if they want to develop their own plans to steady the economy. The pound rose on the news that Truss was quitting.
Truss’s downfall was accelerated by the chaotic scenes of Wednesday, in which Suella Braverman resigned as home secretary over a breach of security protocol, before dozens of Tory MPs were left confused and furious by a slapdash and brutal whipping operation over a vote on fracking, which the government ended up winning easily.
The first sign that this loss of confidence in Truss’s position had become terminal came late on Thursday morning when Sir Graham Brady, the representative of backbench Tory MPs, arrived at Downing Street for a meeting, closely followed by Thérèse Coffey, the deputy prime minister and a close friend of Truss, and then Jake Berry, the Conservative party chair.
Shortly after 1.30pm Truss stood before a lectern placed outside the No 10 door to give a statement that lasted just 90 seconds.
Truss said she had entered office with “a vision for a low-tax, high-growth economy that would take advantage of the freedoms of Brexit”.
She went on: “I recognise that, given the situation, I cannot deliver the mandate on which I was elected by the Conservative party. I have therefore spoken to His Majesty the King to notify him that I am resigning as leader of the Conservative party.”
She and Brady, who chairs the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, had agreed a timetable under which a successor would be chosen in just a week, Truss said, as opposed to the near-two months contest over the summer which saw her succeed Boris Johnson.
In a final humiliation for Truss, and a sign of quite how mistrusted she had become, a YouGov poll found precisely 2% of Britons viewed her as a “good” or “great” prime minister. In contrast, 64% opted for “terrible”, 18% for merely “poor” and 7% for “average”.
MPs also pointed the finger of blame at Coffey. “She was the one causing the grief in the lobbies yesterday, she was the last Japanese soldier on the island fighting the war,” one quipped.
The former Conservative prime minister Theresa May urged Tory MPs to “compromise” as they choose a new leader, after years of increasingly bitter division.
Candidates to replace Truss will need at least 100 nominations in order to stand, a hefty threshold set by the executive of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers in order to avoid a protracted contest. The threshold will mean a maximum of three candidates are likely to be nominated, and potentially only one or two.
Some Tory MPs claimed that the contest had been “stitched up” to allow a Sunak coronation. There will be an indicative vote of MPs once nominations close. Should there be three candidates, there will be two rounds of voting on Monday, meaning that a final pair of candidates will emerge by Monday evening.
Unless there is only one candidate who reaches the nominations threshold, there will be a vote from the membership, despite MPs expressing a strong desire to exclude members from the process.
Should it be required, it will take place over the course of the next week, with at least one broadcast hustings. MPs will also hear from candidates at a hustings after nominations close at 2pm on Monday – but that will take place behind closed doors, meaning a new leader could be chosen without ever addressing the public in the contest.
Sunak received more than 140 votes in the last round, and his allies have sent a call out to backers to begin tweeting their endorsements from Thursday evening.
Sunak lost the leadership to Truss over the summer and was blamed by many members for ousting Johnson. The former chancellor has kept his counsel over the course of Truss’ difficulties, but supporters have been quick to point out many of his predictions about unfunded tax cuts and mortgage rates have been proved correct.
Mordaunt is also likely to be a strong candidate with Brexiter credentials; her last leadership campaign was blunted by attacks from Truss.
Two candidates from the right, Kemi Badenoch and the recently sacked home secretary Suella Braverman, were said to be holding talks about whether one of them could make a bid.
Within minutes of Truss’s departure, opposition parties were demanding an election, saying that a third prime minister since Johnson’s 2019 victory would be absurd. Labour leader Keir Starmer argued that the Tories must not respond again by “shuffling the people at the top without the consent of the British people”.
The SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, said: “It was inevitable Liz Truss would have to go after the damage she’s inflicted – but merely swapping leaders of a broken Tory government is not enough. There must now be a general election – people will accept nothing less.”
George Canning, until now the shortest-serving prime minister in British history, died in office after 119 days in August 1827.