OPINION - This panic among the Tories is making Boris Johnson’s time look stable

 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

U-turns are an inelegant but necessary manoeuvre on the erratic journey of politics. Tony Blair executed one on his pledge to hold a referendum on the EU constitution, deepening integration in the early 2000s, while George Osborne engaged his reverse gear as chancellor over benefit cuts to diffuse an internal row in 2015. What matters is often less the volte-face than the ability of nimble (prime) ministers to declare that they understand the need to do the opposite of what they said before — and then get back to the road map.

The problem for Liz Truss, reeling from her belated kybosh of the 45p top tax-rate cut, is that it has highlighted the corrosive impact of a reckless mini-budget and weekend of crisis which has clearly strained her relations with her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, even before they turned up to address the party faithful at Conference.

The problems Truss and Kwarteng face are nowhere near rear-view mirror. Having seen a central tenet of her first major intervention crash and burn and a hapless chancellor declare “humility” (which, in these contexts, is a status uncomfortably close to “humiliated”), Conservative MPs are in the mood to construct their own “dim sum” selection of policies and exceptions.

Next in line will be the real-terms welfare cut — another unforced error. Simon Clarke, the most adept of the small group of ministers who is fully supportive of Truss’s low-tax-for-growth calculation, had a stab at explaining the need for a new austerity plan at the weekend. But making that up-front hit on poor households while sticking to the bankers’ bonus cuts in the hope of boosting the City is regarded as so politically suicidal by many backbenchers that they would rather take the risk of calling for a change of direction than take their line from the PM and her chancellor. “A lot of us are going to lose our seats anyway,” one red wall MP tells me. “We might as well exact a price now and limit the damage.”

A look at Truss’s waxen face this week shows a more vulnerable side of a woman who, for all her limitations, exuded energy and a will to win in the summer leadership contest. She found herself paralysed first by inaction as the markets doled out unforgiving judgments on her borrowing plans and tax cuts and now faces the ire of the ministers she has only just appointed, who are horrified to have been sent out to defend unpopular policies that she has either ditched already or (like the benefit cut in real terms) may yet have to soften to avoid a revolt.

One of her most vocal former Cabinet critics told me before the eclat that she had “a 10 per cent chance of winning the next election”. That seemed like the harsh end of the spread-bet at the time. It now feels closer to reasonable odds, and even if the extraordinary polling lurch to Labour diminishes, Conservative momentum will be very hard to regain.

Crucially, Truss has united foes of differing interests against her. Rishi Sunak’s advocates can say that none of this would be happening if the safer pair of hands had been chosen to be leader. Boris Johnson will doubtless shortly inform us that the path to defeat began on the day that he was forced by his MPs to leave Downing Street. Green-leaning Tories look askance at her decision to leave the COP26 net zero pledges wilting. It leaves a very thin sliver of support on which to build the promised national recovery.

Bringing forward the next “fiscal event” (as we now call vast hurricanes in the national economic outlook) to the end of this month is the right thing to do in principle but raises the awkward question of what should remain of plans which look irrationally exuberant in their hopes of delivering an instant fix for growth.

A sense of dull panic has gripped the Conservatives in the very week that their aim was to shake off the chaos and scandals of the past year and revive the Tory brand. The result has been precisely the opposite effect: even the latter, fractious days of the Boris government feels like a time of relative stability.

Truss will fight on, in part because she truly believes that her core plans for growth will bear fruit — and also because she has no off-ramp from them. But the loneliest job is being the leader that a party found itself stuck with, for want of other options. Truly, there is no U-turn to get out of that.