18 October 2022

Hunt has bought some breathing room – but he faces huge battles with his own colleagues


If there were any doubt that losing her hand-picked chancellor would spell the end of Liz Truss’ political project, in spirit if not yet in body, Jeremy Hunt swiftly put paid to it. His gutting of the Growth Plan was merciless and near-total; the effect of the act on the Prime Minister’s authority no less devastating.

Whatever one thinks of Trussonomics, or the wisdom or folly of the Conservatives attempting a second change of leader in a single parliament, in political terms she is essentially a prisoner in Downing Street.

Economic policy was at the very heart of the Truss offer – indeed, it was arguably the whole of it. Yet now it has been wrested wholly out of her control in a manner that is surely without precedent. Even as their working relationship disintegrated, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were still marching in vaguely the same direction.

Yet whilst this abrupt volte face seems to have calmed the markets and bought the Government some breathing room – there is talk once again of giving them until the 31st to get things in order – it is by no means out of the woods. The problem is that Truss is beholden to two different groups, her MPs and the markets, and they want different things.

Hunt has his sights fixed on the markets, and fair enough. The chaos unleashed in response to the mini-Budget had to be brought under control. But to listen to his rhetoric is to see clearly the trouble to come. Not only is the Growth Plan being jettisoned almost entirely, but the Chancellor is reviving the language of austerity: ‘We must take decisions of eye-watering difficulty’.

Conservative MPs don’t want austerity. They were returned on the basis of Boris Johnson’s optimistic, somewhat spendthrift 2019 manifesto. They were already aggravated to find themselves more than halfway through the life of the parliament with precious little to put on their leaflets. They’re certainly in no mood to contemplate cuts to schools, the NHS, welfare, pensions, or defence. 

This was becoming obvious (except, apparently, to the Government) at Conservative Party Conference; the impossibility of finding cuts on the scale required was why the Mini-Budget was doomed. Yet even with the Growth Plan abandoned, cuts are still needed – and the political will to deliver them is still lacking.

Moreover, whilst there is nothing constitutionally obliging the Government to go to the country in the event of another change of leader – and surely Tory MPs are not going to be clamouring for an election whilst they are 30 points behind in the polls, whatever they might say now – it would be much easier to make the case against it were a new leader to focus on trying to deliver on the 2019 manifesto. Yet the political and economic window for doing so might have closed.

In short, the Conservatives have some big strategic decisions to at least try and make. They need to decide what their coalition at the next election looks like, how much leeway they have to deliver on the priorities of those voters and what offer to make them in 2024. A programme of spending cuts paired with steep tax hikes, by contrast, is a recipe for… well, for the current state of the polls.

Can the party have this debate whilst Truss remains in post? It seems an almost cruel prospect, given that she and her ideas will scarcely feature in it. But given that MPs seem determined to avoid a second protracted leadership contest, this sort of thinking needs to be done before they can coalesce around a possible successor.

On the other hand, until a new leader is in post it’s hard to see how anyone will be able to impose any sort of order on an increasingly fractious parliamentary party. Perhaps Hunt will be able to drive through austerity by making it a confidence issue, but blackmailing one’s own side is not a foundation for sustainable government – and it would in any event be ridiculous, given that the Government commands not a precarious minority, as after 2017, but a solid majority, at least on paper.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.