Last week it looked like Liz Truss’ legacy might not just be the smouldering remnants of the oldest democratic party in the world, but its possible extinction altogether.
Now, it seems her parting act has been something rather extraordinary – and for once, in a good way; the Conservatives now look, and feel, like they are in a more sane and unified place than for quite some time. No one is pretending the polls predicting almost total wipeout aren’t problematic, but the acute desperation that had set in amongst many Tories during the Truss tenure has dissipated, almost overnight.
Having sailed so close to disaster last weekend and the mad flirtation of a Boris return, it was almost as if by Monday afternoon the Conservatives realized they needed to re-find their collective marbles, sharpish. Their roar of approval as Rishi Sunak got to his feet at PMQs yesterday was in stark contrast to the awful, deathly, sickly silence of Truss’ later appearances.
As a first run-out, PMQs was quite spicy, with Sir Keir Starmer going straight on the attack over non-doms and the reappointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary, despite her having resigned over a security issue days earlier (watchers of the Westminster runes are suggesting ‘she will blow herself up sooner rather than later’). An occasional slight twitch of the PM’s right leg might have denoted some nerves, however, there was nothing here to cause him undue bother and the performance had his trademark polish.
So, to yesterday afternoon, back to building his team. Probably the biggest surprise of the Cabinet appointments on Tuesday was Penny Mordaunt remaining in the junior post of Leader of the House; she will have expected more – unless this is just a ‘holding pattern’ in expectation of Ben Wallace’s resignation from the Ministry of Defence if he doesn’t get the Truss-promised three per cent of GDP defence spending (allowing him to resign ‘on principle’, releasing him to go after the head of NATO job, which is what he really wants).
Michael Gove regaining his previous empire puts ‘Levelling Up’ right back up the agenda. We can expect Grant Shapps to bring his usual enthusiasm to BEIS and the role gives him ample opportunity to continue his energetic broadcast appearances. Mark Harper’s return to Government in the DfT is good news; he’s universally known as a safe pair of hands and as being ‘all over the detail’. Steve Barclay’s reappearance at health means he knows what to expect, but that doesn’t make the scale of the challenge ahead any less daunting, compounded (as everywhere) by spiralling inflation.
Across the board, there is a real desire to get back to some kind of ‘business as usual’ after this summer and autumn of psychodrama, and real recognition of the need to deliver on a domestic agenda, if the Conservative Party is to claw itself back out of the electoral oubliette in which it’s managed to land itself.
Sunak’s backroom team is also extremely important – not least if they are to swerve the huge structural weakness in Truss’ team; that she didn’t have anyone who understood economic and fiscal policy. Sunak himself, and Liam Booth-Smith, his Chief of Staff, think in Excel – so that issue is at least overcome. As a clear sign of how differently this incarnation of Government is viewed by the markets, they remained overall stable when it was announced the new Autumn Statement would be delayed by three weeks, taking place in November. Imagine what would have tanked if Truss had tried to pull that one off?
Truss’ own Chief of Staff Mark Fulbrook (of Sunday Times ‘under investigation by the FBI’ headline fame) still seems intent on demonstrating real ill-judgement. His suggestion that Truss should reward her N10 team in a resignation honours list has not gone down well. That’s without going so far as to question whether those short-lived advisers would even really want it. Talking to them in the aftermath, ‘bruised’ is the word that comes up time and again. One noticeably leaner advisor darkly joked his smaller waistline was down to ‘the Liz Truss stress diet’.
There is a largely prevailing sense of being embarrassed by having been involved in any of it, and a desire to quickly leave the whole sorry period behind them.
The Government is crossing its fingers and toes, hoping they can do the same with the last three months in the public’s mind.