Liz Truss is fighting for her political life after less than a month as prime minister, as a chaotic Conservative conference witnessed a breakdown of cabinet discipline and the first signs of organised opposition to her agenda.
The PM will use her keynote speech to the annual gathering in Birmingham on Wednesday to promise a “new Britain for a new era”, with a libertarian pro-growth platform that she acknowledges will cause “disruption” to life in the UK.
But former cabinet minister Grant Shapps – snubbed for a job by Truss because of his support for leadership rival Rishi Sunak – warned that she had as little as 10 days to save her premiership from mutinous MPs, who are expected to start plotting in earnest when they return to Westminster next week.
And The Independent has learnt that Tory opponents of the PM are sketching out plans for a new group to develop the intellectual underpinning for an alternative to her right-wing agenda.
Grouped around centrist think tanks such as Onward and thinkers such as 2019 manifesto co-author Rachel Wolf, it is expected to draw up a “communitarian” agenda for a leader to replace Truss, maybe after defeat at the next election.
Michael Gove has led the charge against Ms Truss’s tax cuts for the wealthy in Birmingham, but the group is not expected to be a vehicle for a fresh leadership bid by the former levelling-up secretary. It is likely that feelers will be put out to figures including Mr Sunak and Gove-backed leadership candidate Kemi Badenoch, though neither is thought to be involved at this stage.
Intended as a launchpad for her administration, Ms Truss’s first conference as leader has been plagued by U-turns, rebellion and indiscipline, with members of her own cabinet openly challenging the PM’s position on a variety of issues.
After Monday’s climbdown on the £2bn tax giveaway for high earners, the PM and Kwasi Kwarteng sparked further confusion by backtracking on a plan to bring forward the chancellor’s keenly awaited 23 November fiscal statement to October, along with the crucial judgment of the Office for Budget Responsibility on the credibility of his package.
Cabinet ministers Penny Mordaunt and Sir Robert Buckland went public with concerns about Ms Truss’s reported plan to save up to £7bn by reining in welfare benefits.
Commons leader Ms Mordaunt said it “makes sense” to uprate working-age welfare benefits next April in line with inflation at about 10 per cent, as previously promised, rather than wages at 6 per cent. And Wales secretary Sir Robert pleaded for the Tories to “help those genuinely in need”.
Former leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said that a below-inflation hike “doesn’t make any sense”, and ex-minister Lord (Eric) Pickles warned that rebel numbers could be higher than over the ditched abolition of the 45p top rate of income tax.
Former minister Andrew Mitchell said it would be “strange” to bail out the poorest with energy bills only to fail to maintain the real value of their wages. He warned of the danger of Tories forming a “circular firing squad” over the issue.
Ms Truss insisted that no decision had been made on benefits, but then sparked uncertainty over pensions by refusing to rule out an increase in the retirement age of 67.
Meanwhile, home secretary Suella Braverman said she was “disappointed” by the PM’s mid-conference climbdown on the 45p rate and accused Tory critics of the measure of mounting a “coup” against their new leader.
She won the backing of levelling-up secretary Simon Clarke, who tweeted “Suella speaks a lot of good sense, as usual”, but came under attack from trade secretary Kemi Badenoch for her “inflammatory” comments.
Nadine Dorries repeated her call for an early general election so Ms Truss could seek a mandate for her sharp divergence from Boris Johnson’s 2019 manifesto.
“If we don’t want to deliver on the deal, the promises, we need a fresh mandate,” said the former culture secretary.
Mr Shapps told the News Agents podcast that Ms Truss had only a “limited period of time to turn things around”, adding that “the next 10 days” was a crucial period in which to persuade MPs fearful for their seats not to “roll the dice” on a new leader.
The former transport secretary later told Times Radio that Tories would not “sit on their hands” on removing the leader, should “the polls continue as they are”.
Robert Halfon, Tory chair of the Commons education committee, who wants benefits to rise in line with inflation, told the BBC: “The prime minister must get back to showing the Conservatives are a compassionate party ... We need to be on the side of everyone, not just on the side of entrepreneurs. So that means social capital – making sure we grow our society as much as we are trying to grow the economy.”
Senior MP Mark Harper pleaded for “discipline”, telling a fringe event at the Birmingham conference: “We cannot have a situation like we’ve seen today … Various cabinet ministers challenging the authority of the prime minister, government policy changing several times, and cabinet ministers … then criticising backbenchers for having the temerity to have an opinion.
“If that’s how we’re going to carry on, it isn’t going to work.”
One Tory MP told The Independent that Ms Truss had only a “very, very narrow window” to turn things around with her parliamentary party, which would start discussing how she could be replaced when they return to the Commons next week if she was to keep “fighting” them on benefits.
Another said it was already “too late” for Ms Truss to turn things around because of the scale of damage from the mini-Budget. But he warned that moving against Ms Truss could spark an early general election. “We could slit our own throats, and that is going to have to be taken into our considerations.”
In Wednesday’s speech, Ms Truss will set out her argument that UK politics has for too long been dominated by debate over how to distribute a shrinking national wealth.
“Instead, we need to grow the pie so that everyone gets a bigger slice,” she will say.
“That is why I am determined to take a new approach and break us out of this high-tax, low-growth cycle. That is what our plan is about: getting our economy growing and rebuilding Britain through reform.”
She will say that the scale of the challenge facing Britain is “immense” and acknowledge that her plans will disrupt voters’ lives.
“Whenever there is change, there is disruption,” she will say.
“Not everyone will be in favour. But everyone will benefit from the result – a growing economy and a better future. That is what we have a clear plan to deliver.”
Drawing on her experience of growing up in Paisley and Leeds during the Thatcher years, she will say: “This is a great country. But I know that we can do better and we must do better. We have huge talent across the country. We’re not making enough of it. To deliver this, we need to get Britain moving. We cannot have any more drift and delay at this vital time.
“We are the only party with the determination to deliver… Together, we can unleash the full potential of our great country. That is how we will build a new Britain for the new era.”
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