Liz Truss may have inherited an 80-seat House of Commons majority from Boris Johnson, but Britain’s incoming prime minister is facing a restive parliamentary party that may not be wholly behind her new agenda.
One of the first major challenges for Truss will be to shore up her position among the party’s 357 MPs, a majority of whom did not support her leadership bid. In her victory speech on Monday, Truss pledged to use “all the fantastic talents” across the party, including the “brilliant” MPs.
Although she won the leadership contest with 57 per cent of the vote, 14 percentage points ahead of her rival Rishi Sunak, Truss’s mandate from the party membership was not as large as some had predicted. “The result makes her job even harder,” said one supportive minister.
Allies of Johnson have warned that managing Tory MPs may prove “the hardest challenge” for Truss, especially during the first 100 days of her leadership, when the cost of living crisis will dominate and difficult, potentially unpopular, economic decisions will have to be taken. “She will have to govern like it’s a hung parliament,” one Tory strategist said.
One senior government insider said: “The parliamentary party has become almost ungovernable. They did for Boris and they may do for Liz, too. There is no discipline and no appetite to cope with difficult decisions.” One Tory strategist said: “MPs spent far too much time on Twitter and focused on things that don’t matter.”
During the initial shortlisting stage of the leadership contest, Truss came second with the backing of 113 MPs, while Sunak came first with 137. The most recent Tory leader not to win the largest number of MPs, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, only lasted two years in the role from 2001 to 2003, although he never became prime minister.
The incoming prime minister’s inner circle says several groups of Tory MPs could, at best, be publicly critical of her radical economic agenda. At worst, her team fears they will seek to thwart her agenda and wreck her legislative efforts.
The most prominent groups of rebels are likely to coalesce around Sunak, who lambasted her proposed tax cuts as “fairytale economics”. The former chancellor is unlikely to be offered a major job in the cabinet and may choose to return to the backbenches rather than take a junior posting.
Following the announcement of Truss’s victory, Sunak urged his supporters to rally behind his leadership rival. “I’ve said throughout that the Conservatives are one family. It’s right we now unite behind the new PM . . . as she steers the country through difficult times,” he tweeted.
But although some prominent Sunak supporters are likely to be offered ministerial roles by Truss, many are expected to be left on the backbenches. This group could prove to be the main opposition to the new prime minister.
Sunak’s former leadership campaign may be a rallying point for left leaning Tory MPs who may be opposed to Truss’s proposed legislation, such as amending the levelling up bill to focus on deregulation instead of investment.
One senior MP who supported Sunak said: “Rishi will probably keep his head down for a while, but I imagine he will speak out if and when he disagrees with her economic agenda. The same is true for his supporters.”
The second group of rebels are diehard supporters of Johnson, who believe he should not have been ousted as party leader. Truss has sought to woo them by painting herself as a “continuity Johnson” candidate and offered senior roles to Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries, two of Johnson’s most devoted cabinet ministers.
Some reports have suggested that a dozen MPs are already plotting to submit letters of no confidence in Truss’s leadership in an effort to return Johnson to power. But one official to the outgoing prime minister dismissed this suggestion: “Boris will be fully behind Liz. He will be wishing her the best.”
The third group that Truss’s team is concerned about is the 2019 intake of Tory MPs. The caucus of 109 parliamentarians proved one of the most difficult for Johnson to manage, in part because of their diverse ideological and geographical nature — many represent the so-called red wall of pro-Brexit former Labour heartlands, as well as traditional Tory seats.
The 2019 intake includes some of the MPs most loyal to Johnson. Those who won their seats for the Tory party for the first time believe that the outgoing leader is personally responsible for their political careers and fear they will be out of parliament without his leadership.
One said: “I am worried that Liz is going to completely jettison the levelling up agenda and my career will be finished.” Another prominent northern Tory said: “Without Boris, we’ve probably had it in most of the north.”
Another group on Truss’s radar are former ministers. After 12 years in power, the Conservative backbenches include tens of junior and cabinet ministers who have served in governments under David Cameron and Theresa May. With no further prospect of a ministerial career, many see no need to support the government.
Truss’s team will seek to bring back some former ministers, including ex-work and pensions secretary Duncan Smith who is tipped to become leader of the House of Commons.
The last troublesome group is the European Research Group of hardline Brexiters. Truss’s leadership campaign was successful because of the backing of the right of the Tory party, including former Brexit minister Steve Baker. But if she waters down her stance on overriding the controversial Northern Ireland protocol, these MPs may withdraw their support.
Truss will seek to combat this threat with a new party management operation dominated by the whips from her campaign. She is widely expected to appoint the first party’s female chief whip, with Wendy Morton, junior transport minister, a likely candidate according to allies.
Truss will have a brief window from her victory in the leadership contest, in which MPs will give her the benefit of the doubt. The new prime minister will also hope that the threat of a general election in less than two years will force the parliamentary party to unite.
Alive to these concerns, several senior Conservatives have already urged the parliamentary party to unite around their new leader. Congratulating her on Twitter, Johnson said: “Now is the time for all Conservatives to get behind her 100 per cent.”
Cameron, the former prime minister, echoed this call for unity: “I never forget the support I had from all former Conservative leaders when I won the ballot in 2005 and I hope all Conservatives will unite behind the new PM.”