What are the likely terms of the deal to replace Liz Truss?

Sir Graham Brady says a new prime minister will be in place before 31 October, writes John Rentoul

Thursday 20 October 2022 14:40 BST
Liz Truss has resigned
Liz Truss has resigned (Getty Images)

Liz Truss has resigned, and who will replace her will now be hammered out.

Most Conservative MPs understand that the prime minister must be replaced by a single, agreed candidate, without a contested leadership election. Significantly, this is also supported by Conservative Party members. The YouGov poll of members on Monday and Tuesday this week found that 60 per cent of them supported “MPs agreeing on one single unity candidate, so the new leader is appointed without an election”.

The problem is how to decide who that single candidate should be, without going through “any nonsense of votes”, as Sir Charles Walker, the despairing Tory MP, called it last night.

This is almost a reversion to the old pre-democratic days of the Conservative party, when a leader would “emerge” from consultations among MPs and grandees, including the party in the House of Lords. Hence the focus on Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee that represents backbench Tory MPs. His committee is in charge of the rules for the MPs’ stage of leadership contests.

Sir Graham, who has said there should be a new prime minister in place before 31 October, has to put together an agreement that would unite 50 per cent of the parliamentary party, and preferably a much larger proportion. In practice, that means signing up Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt and at least one credible representative of the European Research Group (ERG) faction. Sunak and Mordaunt, as the second and third placed candidates in the leadership election, have the implied support of about two-thirds of Tory MPs, but it would help to have some of the ERG on board as well.

Sir Graham has taken soundings of all MPs, but how can he demonstrate that a majority would back a deal? There are complications at every level.

In my view, Sunak is the best of a bad lot. He is favourably regarded by party members – despite assumptions that he is divisive. In the YouGov poll, 60 per cent of them said Sunak would be “a good replacement” for Truss. True, even more – 63 per cent – said Boris Johnson would be a good replacement, but his support among MPs is much lower. Sunak is also the least unpopular of the possible candidates with the general electorate, which ought to be the prime consideration.

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But Jeremy Hunt has his supporters, as a compromise candidate who is already in post as the acting prime minister. Ben Wallace and even Grant Shapps have also quietly promoted themselves as possible “caretaker” prime ministers. But there is no such thing as a caretaker prime minister in the British constitution, and the party can hardly choose a temporary figure to hold the fort before a fourth prime minister takes over before the next election in two years’ time.

Then there are the terms that Mordaunt would demand for her support, once she is persuaded that she cannot be prime minister herself. I would have thought foriegn secretary and deputy prime minister would work, but that would have to be negotiated directly with Sunak, who cannot afford to be seen to plotting.

As for the ERG, who could speak for them? Suella Braverman, a recent chair of the organisation, is now on the outside. Steve Baker, another past chair, is now in government; he is not a Sunak supporter, but he said last night that “Rishi would be a good prime minister – we’ve got a number of people in the party who can be good prime ministers”. Iain Duncan Smith, a leading member with the added gravitas of a former Tory leader, could be brought back in. Perhaps he could go back to the Department of Work and Pensions to finish the job of constructing universal credit?

Conservative MPs have to go through the Sherlock Holmes process. They cannot carry on as they are. Once they have eliminated all the other candidates, they will have to accept that Sunak is the least bad answer to their problems.

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