LONDON — She began the day hoping for a solid performance at prime minister’s questions to steady her ailing ship.
But Liz Truss entered Wednesday evening with her government in unprecedented chaos after one of her most senior ministers resigned, a top Downing Street aide was suspended and the mutiny in her party descended into open physical warfare.
In a day of bodyblows to her authority Truss was also forced to appoint an arch-critic to her Cabinet and compelled into two further U-turns — one on pensions and one on party management — after multiple MPs threatened to rebel in a crunch vote on fracking.
Labour MPs are now calling for an inquiry after accusing a group of senior Truss ministers of physically “manhandling” Tory MPs — at least one of whom was reportedly in tears — into voting lobbies to support the government’s position. Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg denied any “bullying,” insisting conversations with backbench MPs had been “perfectly normal.”
But as Tory discipline collapsed entirely, a visibly-shaken Charles Walker, Tory MP for Broxbourne, told the BBC in an extraordinary interview: “This whole affair is inexcusable.
“As a Tory MP for 17 years … who’s gone on with it loyally most of the time, I think it’s a shambles and a disgrace.” And he told his “talentless” Tory colleagues who had backed Truss for the leadership: “I hope it was worth it to sit around the Cabinet table — because the damage they have done to our party is extraordinary.”
One minister predicted the situation was terminal for Truss, and that letters of no confidence in her leadership would now “pile in” from Tory MPs.
Although officially Truss is safe from a leadership challenge until next September, most Tories believe that should half the Parliamentary party call for her resignation, she would have no choice but to bow out.
“It feels like death by a thousand cuts.,” the minister said. “This is where Boris [Johnson] was at the end — but we’ve got there very quickly.
“Truss won’t resign. But letters will now pile in next week. Anyone who hasn’t written one already will be writing one.”
Day of chaos
Truss had endured a difficult start to Wednesday, with new stats showing the U.K. inflation hitting a 40-year high of 10.1 percent.
Her exchanges with Labour leader Keir Starmer at PMQs at noon had been bruising — unsurprisingly, given the economic chaos triggered by her ‘mini-budget’ last month, the sacking last week of her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, and the subsequent abandonment of her entire economic program — but appeared not to have been fatal for the prime minister.
But a further blow came with reports that one of Truss’ longest-serving aides, Jason Stein, had been suspended from his Downing Street job. No reason was given, but it followed anger from Tory MPs over anonymous briefings to the press from one of her supposed allies. Stein has yet to comment but faces an investigation by No. 10.
And several hours later Truss’ government was back in full-blown crisis mode as another of her most senior ministers was forced to quit — and did so with a searing broadside at the prime minister.
Suella Braverman, a darling of the Tory right who became Liz Truss’ home secretary — one of the four top posts in the British government — after a failed run for the party leadership, resigned Wednesday afternoon after admitting a “mistake” in the handling of official documents.
Braverman blamed a “technical infringement,” having reportedly passed on government information about immigration stats to a fellow MP from her personal email.
But her allies were swift to accuse No. 10 of an over-zealous enforcement of the ministerial code, and stressed the “absurd” resignation was forced upon Braverman just hours after a bitter row with Truss over liberalizing immigration rules.
Two officials with knowledge of Braverman’s resignation blamed Tory MP Andrew Percy for reporting her to the party whips. An ally of Braverman accused the PM of favoring a backbench MP over the home secretary, and said: “I don’t know what message that sends to other Cabinet ministers.”
In a resignation letter peppered with thinly veiled criticism of the government, Braverman delivered a coded attack on Truss’ own refusal to quit after the disastrous start to her premiership.
“The business of government relies upon people accepting responsibility for their mistakes,” Braverman wrote. “Pretending we haven’t made mistakes, carrying on as if everyone can’t see that we have made them, and hoping that things will magically come right is not serious politics. I have made a mistake; I accept responsibility: I resign.”
Braverman hinted she may now cause trouble from the backbenches, warning that she had “concerns about the direction of this government” and noting Truss had “broken key pledges that were promised to our voters.”
In a sign of her desperately weakened position, Truss replaced Braverman at the Home Office with Grant Shapps — a close ally of her defeated leadership rival Rishi Sunak, who she had sacked from government only last month and who had been widely accused in Westminster of plotting her downfall. Tory MPs have been demanding she offer ministerial positions to all wings of the party.
“It’s obviously been a turbulent time for the government,” Shapps said as he arrived at the Home Office. “The most important thing is to make sure that people in this country know that they’ve got security.”
“It just goes from worse to worse,” sighed one former Cabinet minister, who supported Sunak for the leadership.
“The prime minister is in a very, very difficult position, and this resignation doesn’t help at all. I don’t think [Truss’ premiership] is over yet … but she still remains precarious, and I can’t see her leading us into a general election.”
The exit of Braverman comes after Truss appointed Jeremy Hunt — a centrist within the Conservative Party, and another Sunak supporter — as her top finance minister and jettisoned the libertarian economic policies that had helped her win the Tory leadership but roiled markets.
While winning over backers on the right of the Tory party, Braverman — a former attorney general — has alienated others with spiky interventions in the so-called culture wars, just this week lashing out at “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati” amid road-blocking environmental protests in the U.K.
She has spoken about “her dream” and “obsession” of ensuring controversial flights deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda go ahead — a position that saw her openly mocked on Twitter by former Conservative chair Sayeeda Warsi in the wake of her exit from government Wednesday night.
The opposition Labour Party seized on another major change in personnel in a government that is barely six weeks old, with Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper saying the Truss administration was “falling apart at the seams.”
A former aide to Rishi Sunak was equally pithy. “Truss has written off the Conservative Party battle bus,” they said, via WhatsApp. “It’s over.”
Emilio Casalicchio, Eleni Courea, Cristina Gallardo and Esther Webber all contributed reporting.