Liz Truss’s grip on power appeared to be slipping after a nervy performance in a press conference that was meant to reassure the markets after she sacked her chancellor, one of her closest political confidantes.
It now seems that the British prime minister may soon be ousted, with confidence in her leadership draining away among her MPs, following the fall-out from the calamitous mini-budget of unfunded tax cuts.
In a grim, at times almost pitiful, performance the fledgling prime minister was hit with a series of questions from the media that gravely highlighted and undermined her position.
“You are out of your depth prime minister,” shouted a television journalist as Ms Truss scuttled off stage after taking only four questions during a strange eight minute appearance.
The momentary shocked silence that filled the Downing Street briefing room — inked in the nation’s memory from the Covid-19 briefings — was quickly replaced by reporters confounded by her display and left to wonder what is next.
Ms Truss had presumably been persuaded to hold the press briefing to reassure her party, the nation and the all-important markets that she had turned a corner following a U-turn on cutting corporation tax from 25 to 19 per cent and deposing Kwasi Kwarteng.
A small group of political reporters, from titles including The National, gathered in Downing Street in the expectation that Ms Truss might find the assurance she had demonstrated during her well-received Tory party conference speech a week earlier.
At first it appeared she was reading from the same script referring to her working-class childhood and a desire for a low-tax, high-growth economy.
“People want stability,” she stated. Then a moment later she acknowledged the chaos created by the mini-budget, admitting that “it went further and faster than the markets expected”.
She was “incredibly sorry” for her “great friend” Mr Kwarteng's departure, without giving any explanation for his dismissal. His replacement, Jeremy Hunt, was passingly praised as a “most experienced” politician.
“I will always work in the national interest,” she concluded, rattling through the last part of her statement and barely looking up.
She then took two questions from reporters from Conservative-supporting newspapers, who made similar points questioning why Ms Truss should remain in post when Mr Kwarteng had gone. The answers were unconvincing.
“What credibility do you have to continue governing?” the BBC representative demanded. That was followed by ITV's reporter quoting a former chancellor who said Ms Truss had “totally trashed Tory party reputation on economic management.”
It was painfully bruising for the UK's new leader, who was like a boxer being pummelled mercilessly on the ropes with onlookers hoping for the towel to be thrown in before a serious mishap.
Possibly Ms Truss’s director of communications signalled from the back of the room for her to stop taking the questions, which were clearly affecting her demeanour.
It was an “embarrassingly robotic performance”, one MP said afterwards, and her failure to answer “legitimate journalistic questions” would not reassure either the parliamentary party or the markets.
MPs will now have to contemplate the unthinkable, that having gone through one gruelling leadership contest this summer another is approaching.
The plotting, according to sources who contacted The National, will advance rapidly over the weekend with the former chancellor Rishi Sunak the front-runner to replace Ms Truss.
Three prime ministers in one year would gravely undermine Britain's reputation for sensible stability, which has yet to recover from the 2016 decision to leave the European Union.