By Molly Pollock
To save her premership Prime Minister Liz Truss unceremoniously ditched Kwasi Kwarteng, her chancellor, having stood alongside him, shoulder to shoulder, and his economic policies. For days she insisted in her laboured speech that she was taking the correct decisions that would lead to economic stability. But the markets had another view and with Britain on the brink of economic collapse she was forced to act – not to resign as many were demanding but to throw Kwarteng to the baying wolves.
Her decision, though previously leaked, was made public at a press conference at which Truss was at her most wooden and woeful. The event lasted less than ten minutes, Truss took only four questions from the media, carefully selecting what she wrongly thought would be friendly ones, before rushing from the podium. She said nothing to reassure or to calm the markets, indeed the pound fell after the event.
Speculation followed on whether Truss herself would resign and who her new chancellor would be. Mordaunt’s and Sunak’s names flew around social media, along with others who had recently held the post. But it was Hunt, who had made such a dire job of Health Secretary, who was given, and accepted, the poisoned chalice. Hunt is said to be ambitious, so perhaps he has spied an opening for his ambitions.
Hunt in an interview with BBC Radio4 made it clear, just days after Liz Truss promised MPs she would “absolutely” not make any spending cuts, that “All government departments are going to have to find more efficiencies than they were planning to.” All govt depts will have to make “difficult” public spending cuts and some taxes will increase. “Taxes are not going to come down by as much by as people had hoped and some taxes will go up.”
Hunt considers two mistakes were made by his predecessor: – firstly, he was wrong to cut the top rate of tax for very highest earners when everyone needs to be asked for sacrifices to get through this difficult period; secondly it was wrong for the plans to be announced without reassurance through the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) that we could actually afford to pay for them.
Hunt said he hoped to keep the 1% cut to the basic rate of income tax, but that no decisions had yet been made. Cuts to NHS spending were not ruled out, nor were row-backs on Truss’s pledge to boost defence spending.
The Brexit referendum and its outcome is widely viewed as a major cause of Britain’s present economic debacle. Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England saying in an interview with the FT: “In 2016, Britain’s economy was 90 per cent the size of Germany’s. Now it is less than 70 per cent . And that was before today.”
However Brexit remains central to Tory party policies with Labour ruling out a return to the EU, insisting it will make Brexit work.
Hunt’s interviews indicate that Truss’s economic agenda has been thrown in the fire. The feeling in the media appears to be that because of Truss’s failure, her lack of communication skills and her woodenness when before camera and public is that Hunt now holds a very powerful position, and questions are being asked as to who will be calling the shots from now on.
Poor Liz Truss. All she wanted was to get her picture on the front cover of Vogue, just like Nicola Sturgeon whom she still refuses to speak to, and to become Prime Minister. Now there is a large question mark over both.
Many believe Truss has to go for her incompetence and for bringing the British economy to the brink of collapse through her pursuit of the policies espoused by the ERG. Who to replace her with? And would the country stand for another lengthy leadership election or for MPs finding consensus on a unity candidate to take the government forward?
Given the polls, a general election at present would have to be avoided at all costs as a GE could see swathes of Tory MPs lose their seats, and the party out of power for decades. Another change of PM is seen by some Tory MPs perhaps more as adviseable rather than necessary, as before an election can take place there is the overriding need to reassure the markets, and voters, and put the economy on a more stable basis. If an election could be stalled for 18-24 months that breathing space could probably still see the Tories lose but not so spectacularly that they wouldn’t be able to claw back their position and win the following election.
But how to achieve that? Sleight of hand can work wonder.
It looks as if tactics might have changed. If, instead of opting for another leader, Truss is retained but given a back seat and kept out of the public gaze, away from media and microphones, then the Tories may be able to soldier on. Hence Hunt, more charismatic and a far more competent communicator, able to charm and explain, who already looks more like the PM than Truss, without anybody electing him. The leader in all but name.
Meanwhile former Prime Minister Boris Johnson is apparently still living at Chequers six weeks after resigning as PM. Chequers is said to cost £200,000 month, which begs the question; Who is paying for this? Johnson, leaving his constituents to look after themselves, has hightailed it to the US where he has received $150,000 (£135,000) for a speech to a group called the ‘Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers’. Being a former PM or cabinet minister in Britain obviously opens many golden doors.