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Liz Truss is gone. The only way out of this chaos is a general election

The fear is that political collapse will in turn spark economic meltdown and then social disintegration
Britain's Prime Minister Liz Truss delivers her keynote address on the final day of the annual Conservative Party conference in Birmingham on 5 October 2022 (AFP)

At the end of a long career the notorious Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar fell ill, and was replaced by his bitter rival Marcelo Caetano.

But the political establishment never told him he’d been deposed and came up with a series of elaborate ruses to keep him in the dark. When Salazar recovered, he reportedly continued to have meetings with ministers, give orders, and frequently to mock the hated Caetano, the man who was in reality running the country. 

Liz Truss had no actual power. It was stripped from her after the collapse of the sterling and gilt markets last month

The Portuguese cunningly created a special edition of the national newspaper, Diario de Noticias, with fake news stories and cheerful headlines to keep the old man happy.

Something rather similar has been going on in Britain over recent weeks.

Prime Minister Liz Truss lived in Downing Street, took cabinet, issued orders, and even gave press conferences. She appeared to genuinely believe that she was the prime minister.

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But she had no actual power. It was stripped from her after the collapse of the sterling and gilt markets last month. Her bitter rival Jeremy Hunt, brought in as emergency finance minister after the financial markets forced out Truss ally Kwasi Kwarteng, made the decisions.

Now she is gone.

On Thursday, Truss announced her resignation as prime minister. A Conservative leadership election is due to be completed within the next week, according to Truss.

A national humiliation

Until yesterday, it seemed just about possible to believe that the fiction that Truss was British prime minister would be maintained for months, or possibly years.

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Yesterday, this sorry chapter ended amid shameful scenes in the House of Commons, fiction collided with reality. The fantasy of a Truss government vanished as her government devoured itself. The home secretary, Suella Braverman, resigned after barely a month in office.

The chief whip Wendy Morton resigned, and was reinstated. There is talk that as discipline broke down, some Tory MPs were manhandled during a vote on a Labour Party motion on fracking, with the deputy prime minister, Therese Coffey, reportedly getting involved. Coffey denied the claims, according to sources close to her.

Westminster politics has descended into chaos, a national humiliation that turns Britain – once admired – into a laughing stock across the world.

Britain's new Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt arrives in Downing Street in central London on October 14, 2022.
Britain's new Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt arrives in Downing Street in central London on 14 October 2022 (AFP)

Wednesday's collapse of political authority and control is a direct consequence of the collapse in financial markets three weeks ago, a collapse that was sparked by the Truss government’s calamitous budget statement. Matters will not stop here.

The fear is that political collapse will in turn spark economic meltdown and then social disintegration. This is Britain’s gravest moment since World War Two. The country risks becoming ungovernable. 

In the short term, this brings us back to the problem of Liz Truss.

A 'coup d'etat'

All normal rules of politics would have dictated her resignation following the humiliating reversal of her economic plans. A conventional prime minister would have quit at this point – as Anthony Eden (prime minister 1955-1957) did after the failure of the Suez invasion in 1956.

But Truss - as I informed readers of Middle East Eye before she took office – lacks substance and has no grasp of reality. She chose to struggle on.

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In normal circumstances this would not have mattered much. The famously ruthless Conservative Party would have conducted an elegant political assassination – the fate of Margaret Thatcher in 1990.

That is hard today. The party is so riven by feuds, factions and deep hatreds that it finds it hard to cohere around a new leader.

Hunt, the new chancellor, is a steadying hand at the tiller, but enjoys tiny support among the party membership. The party membership want Boris Johnson back, but Johnson (who missed yesterday’s shambles because he is on holiday in the Caribbean) is the architect of the current disaster.

In any case, the party cannot undergo another six-week-long leadership contest similar to the one that put Truss in power. 

That leaves only one option: an establishment coup d’etat. I expect that this is being worked out as I write. It will involve Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor who came second to Truss in the leadership battle. Hunt, who has restored balance as chancellor, will play a new part.

This will not be a democratic solution, and for that reason is unlikely to survive for long.

A descent into madness

It’s worth reflecting how much has changed. The Conservative Party, led by epic figures like Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, has governed Britain for much of the last 200 years. It’s been well described as the most successful party in the western world. 

Yesterday’s shocking scenes showed that it is no longer capable of good government. Very likely it is finished for good. At the very least it needs a long fallow period to recover.

It’s time for a general election. Only the self-interest of Tory MPs, fearful of losing their seats in a landslide, prevents it

It’s also worth reflecting what this means for the United Kingdom, until recently respected across much of the globe and today reduced to chaos. Yesterday is a warning that we face a national descent into madness unless as a country we pull together.

The Conservative Party is part of that madness and cannot solve the problem. Tory MPs might care to reflect on the advice given by Winston Churchill in one of his last speeches before standing down as prime minister. 

“The first duty of a member of Parliament is to do what he thinks in his faithful and disinterested judgement is right and necessary for the honour and safety of Great Britain. His second duty is to his constituents, of whom he is the representative but not the delegate."

Tory government has become a menace to the stability of the United Kingdom. It’s time for a general election. Only the self-interest of Tory MPs, fearful of losing their seats in a national landslide, prevents it.

This article was amended to reflect the resignation statement of Prime Minister Liz Truss on Thursday.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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