The situation for the Government is deteriorating so rapidly that it is almost difficult to keep pace with it. That Liz Truss should not lead the Conservatives into the next election is now all but a certainty; the question is whether the remainder of her premiership will be measured in months, weeks, or even days.
Several factors militate against an immediate coup. One is the 1922 Committee’s rules, although these have historically (and quite appropriately) proven malleable to the needs of the moment. Another, more intractable, is the widespread desire to avoid a second debilitating leadership contest and the lack of any obvious unity candidate for Tory MPs to unite around.
Yet a third argument is perhaps even more persuasive to Honourable Members eyeing the Satanic state of the national polls and their own majorities: the suggestion that deposing Truss would require her successor to swiftly call what would currently be a cataclysmic general election.
Constitutionally, of course, this is nonsense. A parliament sits either for five years or, following the happy repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the prime minister chooses to go to the country.
The ranks of Conservative MPs are perhaps shorter on staunch constitutionalists than they might have been in previous eras, and politicians today are exposed to the full frenzy of public opinion, via rolling news and social media, in a way their predecessors were not.
Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine MPs pressing a hypothetical post-Truss premier for an election when the Party is 30 points behind in the polls, no matter the pious noises they might make now. It’s very hard to force the hand of a government with a Commons majority; being shouted at by people with no leverage is not the same thing as genuine pressure.
(It’s also an open question, at least, just how hungry are the public for another election, having had them in 2015, 2017, and 2019.)
But politics is not governed solely either by the highest and driest of theory, or by coldly practical self-interest. Would changing leader for the second time in one parliament create a moral case for an election? Many of Truss’s critics argue so: after all, the electorate never voted for Trussonomics; millions of voters backed the Conservatives for the first time on the understanding they were getting Boris Johnson’s new, higher-spending Toryism.
In theory, the best counter-argument to this would be for any new leader to publicly re-commit to the 2019 manifesto: take the getting-on-with-the-job line and adopt a laser-focus on wins which can be delivered by 2024.
In practice, however, that might not be possible. Jeremy Hunt may have gutted the Growth Plan, but there is no talk of a return to the sunlit uplands of Johnsonism. Instead, the Chancellor talks of the need to “take decisions of eye-watering difficulty”; even the pensions triple-lock, that least-deserving of Tory sacred cows, might be for the chopping block.
Governments have the right to change course in response to changing conditions. But as Labour are already pointing out, nobody was talking about this even just a few weeks ago. If they manage to sell the public on the idea that a deeply unpopular pivot to austerity is all the fault of the Mini-Budget, it will give them more than enough cover to keep up the demands for an election.
Tory MPs would be most unwise, however, to conflate these demands for genuine pressure to act. The Conservatives still, if they get their act together, have a mandate from the nation and a Commons majority. Exhausted and divided as they might be, their best bet remains to try and actually use the latter in pursuit of the former. The alternative scarcely bears thinking about.