Ditching the growth plan may not save PM Truss
Famous for satirical headlines, British tabloids are having a field day due to the UK's tumultuous politics, which is equally brutal. One of them – the namesake of this paper – has been betting Prime Minister Liz Truss' tenure with the shelf life of lettuce for a couple of days. Its front page on Monday also featured an image of a lettuce head bought from Tesco, to see if it can outlast Ms Truss' premiership, and there's a livestream where readers can watch the vegetable's progress, too. For those who have a habit of discarding tabloid headlines as gossip, there's no respite from speculations either. The Conservative-supporting press, too, such as The Sunday Times, has advised the Tories that it would be "astute" to let the Labour Party "confront the economic challenges" ahead. The Economist has also suggested that Liz Truss' premiership could very well be the shortest one in modern British history.
Political pundits and the media were remarkably unanimous that her sacking of Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng was nothing but buying off a little more time for herself as his so-called mini-budget that rattled the financial markets was drawn fully on her pro-growth economic promises she had made during her leadership campaign. The reactions to her tax plan in the market and other major economies were quite sharp and harsh. Markets saw her tax cuts unaffordable, which simultaneously weakened the value of the pound and pushed up the cost of borrowing for the government.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) weighed into the debate on the issue of unfunded tax cuts and called for reversal of such policies. For the UK, as a member of G7, the club of industrialised nations, it is quite unusual to be publicly lectured by the IMF. And then came criticisms from its allies, including the US. Following the market turmoil, President Joe Biden said the outcome was "predictable" and "I wasn't the only one that thought it was a mistake." He added that he had disagreed with "the idea of cutting taxes on the super wealthy," but it was up to the UK to "make that judgement, not me."
Since assuming the office, the newly appointed Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has announced a series of U-turns of the government policies, including scrapping the top income tax rate, and a freeze on corporation tax. To calm the markets, he had to make a Monday morning statement over a live broadcast, instead of unveiling it in parliament as per the tradition, in which he scrapped all those tax cuts announced in the "growth plan" by his predecessor a few weeks back.
These assertive measures of the new chancellor, however, have been greeted by the media and political observers as a sign of further waning of Prime Minister Liz Truss' authority. In anticipation of Jeremy Hunt's announcement, The Sunday Times wrote that the new chancellor had taken "full control" by delaying the prime minister's flagship 1p cut to income tax by a year. It also said Hunt's self-proclaimed "clean slate" on the mini-budget would add to the sense among some Tories that the prime minister was "increasingly powerless." Another Tory-friendly weekend paper, The Sunday Telegraph, wrote, "Good news for the economy may mean bad news for Ms Truss." The paper quoted an unnamed senior Conservative as saying, "She's in office, he's [Hunt's] in power. That's why she's got to go."
The dwindling authority of the prime minister means more speculation and potential plotting for change in leadership. Weekend papers have suggested that Liz Truss' former leadership rival Rishi Sunak is ready to replace her, if asked. The Daily Mirror reports that the "rattled" Conservatives want Defence Secretary Ben Wallace to replace Ms Truss as the prime minister. Staunch Conservative-supporting The Sunday Express reports of a "secret plot to oust" Truss, claiming it's been told that around 100 MPs are backing a plan to bring the prime minister's "'catastrophic' stint in No 10 to an end and appoint her successor without a contest." Some observers believe party grandies will prefer crowning the new chancellor as an interim leader, instead of another bruising leadership contest.
Opposition parties have demanded a new general election as the main contender, the Labour Party, has been maintaining quite a significant lead over the Conservatives since the unceremonious exit of Boris Johnson. However, Conservative MPs are terrified about the likely electoral disaster, which makes it more likely that if and when Liz Truss is forced out, a replacement would be found.
The current party rules prevent a formal leadership challenge for a year following a leadership election or a confidence vote among the MPs. But, if the majority of party MPs submit no-confidence letters to the chair of the back-bench members body known as the 1992 committee, then that could force a rule change and even allow the MPs to bypass party members and elect a new leader themselves.
A handful of MPs in the party have already broken cover to call for Liz Truss to go. Her premiership may very well outlast a lettuce head, but securing it till the next election remains uncertain.
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist and writes from London, UK. His Twitter handle is @ahmedka1