Cornered, bellicose and dangerous

The lady was for turning after all, writes Eddie Ford, and the Tories are now in a state of open civil war, facing a crushing electoral defeat. So will Liz Truss play the Ukraine war card?

What a rollercoaster week, Britain now having the sniff of a failed state. With the Conservatives plunging ever further into crisis, Liz Truss’s cabinet is now in a state of open civil war over key aspects of policy and programme. Most dramatically of all, Suella Braverman, the home secretary, accused Tory MPs of having “staged a coup” and “undermined the prime minster in an unprofessional way” to force the reversal of the abolition of the 45% top rate of tax.

Braverman’s accusations were particularly aimed at former cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Grant Shapps, who spent the first day of the Tory Party conference in Birmingham publicly attacking the abolition of the 45% rate and Truss’s economic plans in general. Gove declared to the media that it was “not Conservative” to fund tax cuts from borrowing or slashing the welfare budget, warning that, if she did not change course, then she risked having the mini-budget voted down in parliament. Of course, the lady was for turning after all, despite saying on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg that she would do no such thing. But things were different the next day after she received a visit very early in the morning from Sir Graham Brady, chairman of 1922 Committee and bringer of bad news. He told Truss that she did not have the numbers to get her 45% tax cut plans through parliament, despite the Tories having an effective working majority of 75.

Now the line from Liz Truss and chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng is that scrapping the 45% rate was a “distraction” from all the other marvellous things in the ‘mini-budget’ - notwithstanding the fact that it completely spooked the markets, sent the pound plummeting and the yields on government gilts soaring upwards. This forced the Bank of England to eventually intervene with a potential £65 billion injection to prop up pension funds, which were on the verge of collapse. In fact, seemingly set on self-destruction, Truss has refused to rule out “returning” to the idea of abolishing the 45% rate, saying she supported it in principle, and Kwarteng twice referred to the move as being “postponed” rather than cancelled. This perhaps justifies the remark from Paul Donovan, chief economist of UBS Global Wealth Management, that investors are inclined these days to regard the Conservative Party as a “doomsday cult”.

And it does have to be said that Kwasi Kwarteng’s conference speech, saying his mini-budget caused “a little turbulence”, came across as a suicide note. Now the embattled chancellor is involved in a slightly bizarre dispute over whether he would bring forward to this month his November 23 fiscal plan. The pound strengthened on Tuesday after government sources were briefing that Kwarteng would indeed do that - which would represent another U-turn and a further indication of a growing split between No10 and No11. But he went on to dismiss people “reading the runes” and said he was sticking to the original date - thus sending the pound downwards again.

Battle lines are now being drawn over Truss’s refusal to rule out saving £4 billion a year by raising benefits in line with earnings rather than inflation - ie, a real-terms cut for people already suffering from the cost-of-living crisis. Unsurprisingly, as a spokesperson for the ‘Nasty Party’ faction, Braverman is strongly in favour of benefits cuts - talking about the UK’s “Benefits Street culture” and how there needed to be “more stick” to get “a stubborn core who see welfare as the go-to option” back into work. But this seems to be a minority opinion amongst Tory MPs, some saying that they did not come into politics to make the poor poorer. Breaking ranks, two cabinet ministers - Penny Mordaunt and Robert Buckland - have openly come out against the idea of benefits cuts.

With tension at boiling point, Grant Shapps suggested that Truss had about 10 days to turn things round, signalling that MPs may try to remove her - if polls continued to show Labour on course for a landslide majority, “a way would be found to make that change”. Under current rules, Truss is safe from a leadership challenge for a year after her election, but the 1922 executive could change the rules any time it likes, if the pressure from Tory MPs is overwhelming.

As for Tobias Ellwood, who lost the Tory whip three months ago for not supporting Boris Johnson in a no-confidence vote, he has urged disillusioned MPs not to quit the party. He has given Liz Truss until Christmas to turn her premiership around and see the party return to its “sensible and fiscally responsible” roots, arguing that “haemorrhaging the one-nation voice” would lead to electoral disaster. He called on the under-fire prime minister to “regroup very, very quickly” by bringing in the “full complement of talent”. That is, he is complaining about the capture of the Tory Party by a narrow faction. Amidst increasing whispering among some MPs about submitting no-confidence letters, Ellwood wants any future leadership candidate to be selected by MPs alone - depriving the 172,000 Conservative members of their right to vote. In that way, he hopes, the Tory Party might end up with a ‘sensible’ or pragmatic leader.

Way out?

Given that the economy is in a crazy place, it is hardly surprising that Labour has developed a big lead over the Tories. Over the last week or so we have seen a nose-dive in Conservative support, going from about a 10% Labour lead to well over 20% - one poll showed 33%, a staggering figure. Now there is talk of a House of Commons rebel alliance to shoot down Kwasi Kwarteng’s plans, which is technically feasible because it was presented as a ‘mini-budget’, not an actual budget - therefore in theory does not involve a confidence vote, though Tory whips or the party hierarchy might have a different opinion.

Presumably the next general election will be as late as possible in 2024, as the outlook for the Tories is bleak - so hold on for a miracle. From the point of view of an individual Tory MP, wanting to keep their seat and career, the thought of going into an election on a programme of abolishing the cap on bankers’ bonuses, whilst cutting benefits (unemployment? sickness?), is not an appealing one at all. Even for the most reactionary Tory, this is a difficult sell - perhaps, like Gordon Brown, there are worries that “there will be a national uprising” if Liz Truss decides not to increase benefits in line with inflation.1 But, unless the Tories get staggering economic growth rates, not just one or two percent - which they surely cannot get in the middle of what is going on in the world - a Labour landslide is the most likely scenario.

If Labour’s 33% poll lead is maintained - a very big ask - that would mean 498 Labour seats and 61 Tory seats, which would be the lowest number of seats for the Conservative Party ever! No wonder that a Tory MP - one of the architects of Boris Johnson’s downfall - told the New Statesman that there is a “state of disbelief” on the back benches and the very survival of the party is in question, predicting that Truss will not lead the Tories into the next general election.

Now, you should not take such a huge lead as a serious prediction - but it does make it clear to Tory MPs that no-one is safe. Hence, we should very much expect Sir Keir to be the next prime minister. After all, he always looked like a rightwing prime minister in waiting, long before he became Labour leader. It is worthwhile remembering all the silly talk that he does not want to beat the Tories, that he is only concerned with attacking the left - or the idea that a Labour victory is statistically impossible! Statistics are there to be broken in politics - they are not iron laws.

The expectation of a victory was keenly felt at the recent Labour conference. In part this explains the complete absence of heckling, booing and other such protests from the floor - in contrast to last year. That and the ongoing purge and climate of fear. Yet not only on the right, but for some on the official left too, there is the prospect of career advancement. As prime minister, Sir Keir will have patronage to give out on an industrial scale: not only cabinet ministers but all the way down to PPSs, spads and quangos and all the way up to the House of Lords. Talk by Momentum, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Socialist Campaign Group, etc, that the left is setting the agenda owes nothing to the truth. No, it is a declaration of surrender, a signal that they are up for being bought, an indication that they are willing to take the well-trodden road from the soft left to the hard right.

However, there is another scenario - something we have flagged up before. Is there any way out for Liz Truss? We can safely assume that her Wednesday conference speech about “whenever there is change, there is disruption” will not turn the tide. One possible option for her is to play the Ukraine card. Talking up the war and making it the central issue - the reason we are going through all this is not because of bankers and their bonuses: it is Putin and his evil regime. In a sense, to do what Margaret Thatcher did in 1982 over the Falklands - going from being deeply unpopular to becoming a war hero and election winner. Of course, Ukraine is not the same as Argentina and a few islands in the south Atlantic. Russia is a far more dangerous foe, with the potential to escalate into a nuclear conflict.

With deep problems at home that look almost insurmountable, it would make sense for Truss to step up British involvement in the Ukraine war, perhaps with a more visible presence of SAS units - which are already there in the western part of the country - and to provoke Russia in this or that way in order to invite retaliation. This in turn would lead to calls for greater British involvement and military action.

At Liverpool, for its own understandable reasons, the left wanted to emphasis strikes, picket lines, and so on - anything to avoid a debate on Ukraine. But there was such a debate, of course, and only one person, Angelo Sanchez from Leicester East, objected to the Nato line promulgated by Sir Keir. That is precisely the point: high politics cannot be avoided. Some 96-year-old woman dies and Britain stops for 10 days of official mourning, with huge amounts of public money spent on the lamentations - and strikes suspended. Ukraine is the very definition of high politics, and the idea that the Labour movement can get around high politics by concentrating on bread-and-butter issues is a non-starter.

With the war turning against him, Vladimir Putin is cornered, bellicose and dangerous, but so is Liz Truss. She will not deploy Britain’s nuclear weapons, as that would need US permission, but she can bring the war back home in all sorts of ways - not least the effective banning of strikes that undermine the war effort by making the UK’s anti-trade union laws even more draconian.


  1. www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/gordon-brown-says-national-uprising-28157126.↩︎