The U.K. government – and its leader, Prime Minister Liz Truss – appears to be in a spot of trouble, to use a typically British understatement. An economic mess largely of its own making has resulted in U-turns, a high-profile firing, curious absences and plummeting support.
Indeed, just months into the job, Truss appears in danger of becoming the shortest-lived U.K. prime minister in history.
So what exactly has gone wrong, and what happens next? The Conversation asked Garret Martin, an expert on U.K. politics at American University School of International Service, to explain all.
Who is Liz Truss and how did she become prime minister?
Liz Truss is both the leader of the Conservative Party and the nation’s political leader – albeit not one put in place by the electorate. In early July 2022, then-U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, having lost the support of his party after a series of scandals, resigned as leader of the Conservatives. Instead of stepping down immediately as prime minister, Johnson announced that he would stay on until his party had selected a successor.
The leadership election proceeded in two distinct steps over the course of the summer. Through a series of votes, Conservative members of Parliament whittled down the list of candidates to two finalists: Truss, who served as foreign secretary, and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak. It was then up to the wider members of the Conservative Party to pick between the top two. On Sept. 5, Truss was formally announced as the winner, with 57.4% of the votes, paving her way to become the new prime minister.
Why is she in trouble?
Truss came to office amid extremely difficult circumstances. Queen Elizabeth II died within a few days of her taking over from Johnson. That removed the promise of any new leadership “bounce,” as the nation was plunged into an official period of mourning.
Overseeing the transition to a new monarch only added to the plethora of thorny challenges affecting the government, including the war in Ukraine and the threat of Scottish secession, as well as the severe energy and inflation crises.
But if any observers expected caution from Truss, they were rapidly corrected. On Sept. 23, then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng outlined a bold “mini-budget” to Parliament. This new plan promised growth for a struggling U.K. economy, relying on a massive package of tax cuts. It would have represented the biggest tax cut in half a century, with benefits predominantly for richer segments of the population.
This was not a complete surprise, since Truss had campaigned on such a platform during the leadership election. Yet the scale and speed of the announcement were stunning, an example of what BBC journalist Nicholas Watt referred to as “shock and awe” tactics.
It was an audacious gamble by Truss – and one that completely failed to convince the markets. Within days of Kwarteng’s announcements, the pound had plummeted in value, leading British borrowing costs to shoot up. Meanwhile, soaring interest rates piled on misery to millions in the U.K. in the shape of higher mortgage payments.
The International Monetary Fund piled on as well, urging the U.K. government to “reevaluate” the planned tax cuts because of how they might “stoke soaring inflation.” And the Bank of England was forced to take drastic measures, including buying an unlimited quantity of government bonds, to protect the U.K. economy from crashing even further.
How has she responded?
With pressure mounting and growing disquiet among the wider public and members of her own party, Truss resorted yet again to drastic measures. She sacked Kwarteng unceremoniously on Oct. 14, meaning he had lasted only 38 days on the job.
Jeremy Hunt, a former foreign secretary, stepped in to replace Kwarteng – the fourth chancellor in less than four months. He immediately proceeded to roll back nearly all the measures promised in Kwarteng’s mini-budget. Hunt emphasized that this was necessary to restore confidence in the U.K. economy, but it was also an unmistakable and stunning rebuke of the prime minister. Her absence from Parliament during an “urgent question” on the dismissal of Kwarteng and subsequent ducking out of a planned media event have done little to instill confidence in her handling of a political crisis. And that crisis only worsened on Oct. 19 with the announcement that the U.K.‘s home secretary had resigned over an apparent security breach.
Truss, for her part, is now trying to salvage what is left of her authority. In a recent BBC interview she confessed to mistakes but remained adamant that she would lead her party in the next elections. However, that decision will be in the hands of the party.
Can she cling on to her job?
Truss’ future will depend on how the Conservative Party navigates a difficult dilemma. It could try to stick with Truss, in the hope that there is enough time for her to recover. After all, the next election could be as far away as January 2025.
Yet the prime minister is deeply wounded and will face a major challenge to recover her credibility. As it stands, only 10% of voters approve of her leadership, with 80% having an unfavorable view, a significantly worse score than even Boris Johnson when he resigned. Within her own party, a whopping 55% want Truss to leave.
The Conservative Party could try to ditch Truss, but the various paths to achieve that have drawbacks as well. The prime minister could resign of her own accord, seeing the writing on the wall. But she has not shown any inclination to do so as of now and told Parliament on Oct. 19, 2022, that she is a “fighter, not a quitter.”
The Conservatives could try to revise their current internal rules, which protect any new leader from facing a confidence vote within their first year in office. That is a feasible step if enough members of the party support that; but it would trigger yet another long and divisive leadership contest mere months after the last one.
The Conservatives could also try to pass a motion of no confidence in the government, triggering a new general election. Yet that would be an extremely risky strategy, considering the latest polls show the opposition Labour Party with a dramatic 29 percentage-point lead.
What are the options to replace her?
Were Truss to leave office, there would be several possible candidates to replace her.
These include figures like Rishi Sunak; Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt; or Jeremy Hunt – all of whom ran against Truss in July. Boris Johnson might even try a daring comeback, although that remains a stretch, considering the circumstances in which he left office.
But whoever is in office, whether Truss or someone else, will face a steep climb to regain the confidence and support of voters.
Garret Martin, Senior Professorial Lecturer, Co-Director Transatlantic Policy Center, American University School of International Service