‘Like being in a cult’: MPs on the seven days that brought down Liz Truss

The mood among backbench Conservatives after PM’s resignation seems to be overwhelmingly one of relief

There are countless indignities in becoming the briefest-serving UK prime minister of all time, and a new one arrived on Friday morning when a No 10 official was able to confirm that Liz Truss had moved into the Downing Street flat – but not whether she had had enough time to fully unpack.

Truss is spending the weekend at another prime ministerial residence, the country retreat of Chequers, where she will presumably reflect on the month and a half of chaos she visited on herself and the nation, a headily compressed incumbency that ended with Thursday’s 89-second resignation speech.

It is not only the prime minister who is still coming to terms with one of the most astonishing political weeks in UK history – even by the accelerated standards of the post-2016 era – or with the wider rise and fall of Truss-mania.

One weary-sounding Conservative MP said they felt they had been in the grip of a cult over the last six weeks – and had escaped just in time. Others, however, still felt trapped, they said. “That is literally what it’s been like … It’s such a sense of relief. I just thank God it’s over.”

If there is a common emotion among a still atomised Conservative parliamentary party, one that has just plunged itself into yet another bruising leadership contest, it is this sense of sheer disbelief at what they have been through.

“I thought I’d seen it all, being a being a veteran of the Brexit votes, that whole period,” a senior backbencher said. “But just when you think you’ve seen it all, something else happens. And a lot of it seemed to happen this week.”

As Truss retreats to Chequers – the 10-bedroom floor plan of which she barely had a chance to learn after an initial post-Boris Johnson refurbishment – she might look back to a week ago, when her position seemed merely desperate, rather than terminal.

This is not to suggest that the mood then was upbeat, even among Truss’s close allies. “The hardest part is getting up in the morning and lying to yourself that the battle is still winnable,” one minister sighed at the start of the week. “You’ve got to try and convince other people, but I’m struggling to convince myself any more.”

It is nonetheless fair to say that as recently as Monday, there was a consensus among Tory MPs that Truss’s remaining time in office could still be measured in weeks, maybe months.

With the Treasury returning some stability to markets in the light of Jeremy Hunt’s fiscal discipline as the new chancellor, most Tory MPs seemingly agreed it would be foolhardy to depose the prime minister at least before the planned fiscal statement on 31 October.

What changed? However shocking, the removal of Suella Braverman as home secretary on Wednesday afternoon after a still murky sequence of events centred on the use of a personal email to send government documents, many MPs trace the final collapse to events a few hours later.

The bungled handing of a relatively routine opposition motion on fracking by Truss’s ministers and whips has been well chronicled, not least the claims of shouts, abuse and even physical handling of reluctant Tory MPs in a vote the government was always likely to win with ease.

MPs in the division lobby during the fracking vote.
MPs in the division lobby during the fracking vote. Photograph: Chris Bryant/Twitter

What has become more clear since then is the way this debacle cemented the view in MPs’ minds that this was a government that could not even get the basics right, and had to be ejected as soon as possible.

One MP who was among those who rebelled by not voting – “I hid in my office, so I missed all the fun” – said the episode left them baffled. “Even when I was on my way home, I still didn’t know whether it was meant to have been a confidence vote or not. But I’ve not as yet had a message saying I’ve lost the whip, so I suppose I must still be a Conservative MP.”

As the week progressed, more and more backbenchers who had previously been grumbling to colleagues about their worries called publicly for Truss to go.

“It’s not an easy thing to do, because you know you’re going to be in the black book for ever, and you don’t know when she’s going to go,” recounted one MP who spoke out. “I thought: ‘This is the end. They’re going to crucify me.’ But I also just thought that I had to do it.”

The leadership contest sparked by Truss’s departure lasts only a week, meaning predictions about her successor are necessarily difficult. But many Tory MPs seem to agree on two potentially contradictory things: that Boris Johnson could well win; and that the party has to unite behind whoever is the victor.

A common belief is that if Johnson reaches the final two in Monday’s voting by MPs, he is likely to win among Tory members, who will, if required, choose the new leader in an online ballot running from Tuesday to Friday.

One MP said: “I’m in a working class seat, and he still has a lot of support here. A lot of people were annoyed when he went, and that’s not just Tory activists. And I think he’ll get the nomination from MPs. All his cronies will vote for him, the ones who got Liz Truss in.”

Another backbencher said they and colleagues were painfully aware that voters would not tolerate yet more disunity under a third prime minister since the 2019 election.

“If the party doesn’t knuckle down, then it really is an existential threat,” they said. “If we don’t rally round Boris, or Rishi, or Penny, or whoever it is, then the calls for a general election would become overwhelming.

“So it’s make or break, it really is. I don’t necessarily believe those polls showing us winning 23 seats or whatever. But then you look at Canada – the Progressive Conservatives were wiped out. These are unprecedented times, so who’s to say it couldn’t happen here?”


Peter Walker and Aubrey Allegretti

The GuardianTramp

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