'Febrile' plotting in Westminster to replace Liz Truss

Former chancellor Rishi Sunak has spoken to leadership rival Penny Mordaunt with prime minister's position still under threat, The National can disclose

British Prime Minister Liz Truss Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng chat at the opening session of Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham last week.  Mr Kwarteng was sacked on Friday and Ms Truss is under real pressure to stay in post. EPA
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Britain's former chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has spoken with Cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt with a view to form a new government if Prime Minister Liz Truss is ousted, Conservative Party sources have told The National.

Mr Sunak also held meetings with his former special advisers at his constituency in Richmond last week, potentially for leadership planning, it can be disclosed.

The National can also report that any leadership contest will probably be held with a “very high entry bar”, with candidates requiring the support of between 50 and 60 MPs to enter the race.

But there is also discussion, should Ms Truss be pushed out of office, for a caretaker prime minister to be appointed for three months to allow time for a more considered leadership contest.

The sources also disclosed that Conservative MPs’ WhatsApp groups are ablaze with plotting, including intense debate about Mr Sunak, who came second to Ms Truss in last month’s leadership race.

“Rishi met with his Spads [special advisers] in Richmond a week ago, so he’s obviously in the planning phase,” a Westminster source said. “Rishi also briefly talked to Penny Mordaunt. As a result, she is now regarded as a ‘flight risk’ on resigning from government.”

A former minister said that the 1922 Backbench Committee, that oversees elections, could change the rules to set the bar at 50 MP supporters to speed up a “coronation” for the new leader.

“This will slash it right down to a couple of contenders. What we really want is a tsunami of support for a single ticket that will ease the pain and we do have to have an election because that person needs a mandate.”

Jeremy Hunt, a moderate Conservative, is the new British chancellor after Kwasi Kwarteng was sacked following his mini-budget that caused market chaos. AFP

A backbench MP said: “We do not want a debilitating, drawn-out election with the membership, so it will essentially have to be a coronation.”

It is still uncertain if Mr Sunak would unite with Ms Mordaunt, although they would prove a powerful force as more than two thirds of MPs voted for them in the summer leadership contest.

But others say it is still uncertain if Mr Sunak would automatically be chosen after the ill-feeling he caused by hastening Boris Johnson’s end when he resigned as chancellor in July.

Other MPs believe that another “clean pair of hands” candidate could emerge, potentially untainted by association with Ms Truss and regarded as sensible. Names put forward include the new chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, Grant Shapps, the respected former transport secretary, Tom Tugendhat, the security minister and Kit Malthouse, the current education secretary.

With Mr Kwarteng sacked it is a question of whether “he takes Liz down with him” the backbencher said.

“There’s lots of WhatsApps going around saying that she’s got to go, it’s meltdown and hysteria. Some say it’s probably best to keep her on as PM but she’s so toxic, her polling numbers are shocking. There’s lots of febrile stuff but the problem is there’s no focus.”

The former minister said: “There will be plotting over this weekend but it’s a question of whether or not Rishi breaks cover. He might be marmite to some but his economic policies have certainly been vindicated.”

While it is unclear whether Mr Sunak will come forward as a leadership contender, Ms Truss's authority appears to be evaporating.

“How will she stand up at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday after she has trashed her own economic policy?” the backbench MP said. “You could get a move on her at that point but they will have to move fast as there really is not much time to repair the roof before the next election. It’s all grim, grim, grim with no great solution.”

It was accepted that the expected U-turn on corporation tax might “save her until Christmas”, but if Ms Truss’s polling remained poor then she would be gone by the new year.

MPs are also angry that the Downing Street operation was still lacklustre, being run by young and inexperienced staffers.

“Number 10 is manned by children, bar Mark Fullbrook [chief of staff] who’s never worked in a government job and has a few outstanding issues,” the former minister said. “They are under-gunned in Downing Street and no one knows what’s going on.”

Whoever is prime minister in 2023 know sit will be an immense challenge to defeat Sir Keir Starmer’s resurgent Labour Party at the next general election, to be held before January 2025.

“Whoever that might be, it’s possible but unlikely they might win the election, there’s just too many hard facts against us,” the backbencher said.

Updated: October 14, 2022, 5:59 PM