Tories weigh sacrificing their leader to save their future

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Good morning from Birmingham. A full-blown civil war has broken out in the Conservative party. Suella Braverman, the home secretary, has accused Liz Truss’s internal rivals of launching a “coup” in advocating for a U-turn in the 45p tax rate cut. Kemi Badenoch, the international trade secretary, has accused Braverman of using “inflammatory language”.

Elsewhere, Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House, has supported increasing benefits in line with inflation while Braverman has argued for further cuts, criticising “benefit-street culture”. George Parker and Jim Pickard have the story.

Privately, many ministers and MPs blame Mordaunt for the breakdown in internal discipline. It was her public opposition to a real-terms cut in benefits that broke the taboo, and facilitated the internal wrangling between ministers.

But the real culprit is Liz Truss. Her U-turn has created the sense among MPs that if they don’t like a cut, they can get rid of it via rebellion, and her political weakness means that the next leadership election is essentially under way and that various MPs are already profiling for the contest. Some thoughts on all that below.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to insidepolitics.

Unhappy families

The question you keep asking me is this: will Liz Truss lead the Conservatives into the next general election? To which my only answer is: well, I’m not sure.

Large numbers of MPs and aides think that the party knows all too well that having a third prime minister in a single term will make them look ridiculous, and that changing leader risks ending up with another leader who favours cuts to tax and to state spending rather than a leader who seeks to occupy the same space that Boris Johnson did so successfully in 2019.

In many ways, the best thing to happen to Liz Truss at this conference is Suella Braverman. That she is getting rave reviews among party activists, and advocating for tax cuts for the rich and further spending cuts for everyone else makes MPs nervous. The big hope of Truss’s bitterest critics has been that they could change the party’s rule book to trigger a contest sooner rather than later, and then cut the party membership out of the equation and elect someone like Ben Wallace or Rishi Sunak.

But the painful reality for them is that it looks, at this point, unlikely that Braverman or any of the other potential candidates on the party’s right will quietly lie down and let that happen.

If Truss does get to govern for a whole year without a challenge, that increases the chances that Conservative MPs will conclude that the damage of another leadership election outweighs the benefits of trying to change leader.

That’s the version of events you’ll hear from most MPs. But I’m dubious, because the Tory party’s polling position is, not to put too fine a point on it, disastrous. Here’s the latest SavantaComRes poll, which gives Labour the largest vote share and lead in the pollster’s history:

These are numbers that indicate not only Conservative defeat but risk the complete extinction of the party.

My general view is that the Tory party will never go into an election with such bad polling without at least trying to change leaders again. John Major got to lead the Tories into the 1997 election, but had to face off a leadership challenge first. He was, in any case, more popular than his party, had won the 1992 election unexpectedly, had the express support of a majority of his MPs, and had a strong economic record to point to. None of those could currently be said for Liz Truss.

I’m aware that I can’t see a way the party can trigger a contest within the existing party rule book. But I just don’t believe that the Conservative party will risk an election in which the party’s future is in doubt without a fight. While it is only a minority of Tories who believe they will get rid of Truss if her poll ratings do not improve, I think that minority is almost certainly right.

Now try this

I went for dinner at Fazenda Birmingham, and would heartily recommend it to anyone visiting Birmingham (or Manchester or Leeds where the restaurant also has branches). But my favourite meal during this conference season was at La Galleria: not because the food was nice (though it was) but because of the company. A good reminder that ultimately what really makes a good night out isn’t the food, but your companions.

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