Truss prepares for likely victory, but political threats loom on all sides
As the Conservative leadership contest draws to a close, Westminster has already started to look beyond it to what follows if – as all the polling suggests – Liz Truss is declared the winner.
If elected, Truss will only get once chance to make a first impression and the public will not give her much time to make it after a summer of being told to wait for a government plan to deal with energy price rises and spiralling inflation. Faced with calls for levels of direct government support on a par with the national response to COVID, whether Truss sticks to her preference for tax cuts in her emergency budget or goes far bigger than she has previously indicated could determine her fate with voters.
How her own MPs respond will be crucial too, and presents an unenviable political challenge to sit alongside perhaps the worst economic crisis faced by any recent incoming Prime Minister.
Over the course of less than two months, Conservative MPs will have removed a leader they had lost confidence in and seen him replaced with a one who came third in all but the final round of parliamentary voting.
Defections from the Sunak campaign have seen Truss overtake him in MP support over the course of the membership stage of the campaign, but her mandate will clearly come more from party members than from MPs, who did not initially flock to her. Truss will become the first Conservative leader since Iain Duncan Smith to become leader without having topped the MPs’ ballot. That is not a happy precedent.
In the short term, though, this is unlikely to cause too much of a problem. Conservative MPs – whoever they voted for – will for the most part want to be seen to support the new leader and to take the fight to Labour after nine months of infighting. For her part, Truss is unlikely to completely exile Sunak supporters and will present a picture of a more unified government drawn from across the party.
In the longer term, though, lingering animosity from the contest – and how it came about – are unlikely to go away.
Perhaps the trickiest prospect for Truss is her immediate predecessor. Her loyalty to Boris Johnson stood her in good stead during the campaign, but many members believe he was prematurely – and unfairly – ousted by MPs, risking a creeping sense of buyer’s remorse unless Truss stamps her image on the party.
Johnson is well aware of the pull he still has and is likely to use it from time to time, whether from the backbenches or from a well-timed article or interview. If he chooses to pop up at party conference this autumn, members will cue around the block to hear him speak, stealing the limelight from Truss just as he did from David Cameron and Theresa May. Should she stumble, the ‘What Would Boris Do?’ mantra from members would only get louder and Johnson – still feeling he was wronged – is unlikely to try and quieten them privately, whatever he might say publicly.
The contest has also elevated potential future rivals who struck a chord with MPs in the early rounds of voting, such as Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch, while – at opposite ends of the party to each other – Tom Tugendhat and Suella Braverman will expect to be taken seriously and know that they have positioned themselves as standard bearers for their respective wings if they are not.
All this is without the headache of Sunak himself. Received wisdom is that he has talked himself out of accepting a role in any Truss Cabinet, which would inevitably involve a demotion. Whether he is inside the tent or outside it, having topped the MP contest, Sunak will know he has a significant following and is unlikely to have given up hope of a future run if – to borrow a phrase from Johnson – the ball comes loose from the scrum once again.
After such a bruising few months Conservative MPs will be determined to present a clear and public show of unity to their new leader as they face a dauting series of crises. Unless the new leader deals with those competing crises quicky and decisively, however, that show might not go on for long.