Liz Truss will on Wednesday attempt to rally Conservative MPs behind her faltering leadership, at a party conference that has descended into acrimony, cabinet infighting and confusion.
Truss, who has been prime minister for less than a month, will urge her party in a brief 30-minute speech to unite behind her tax-cutting economic policy, which has spooked markets and sent Tory poll ratings into freefall.
“We cannot have any more drift and delay at this vital time,” she will tell party members in Birmingham, insisting that her debt-funded tax cuts would help Britain “break out of this high-tax, low-growth cycle”.
Truss might have hoped the conference would be a coronation after her election as Tory leader on September 5; instead she is struggling to get a grip on her party after days of political chaos.
The prime minister was forced on Monday to axe a plan to scrap the 45p top rate of tax by rebel Tory MPs, prompting home secretary Suella Braverman to accuse her colleagues of staging “a coup”.
Kemi Badenoch, trade secretary, in turn accused Braverman of using “inflammatory language”; throughout the day on Tuesday there were signs of party discipline collapsing.
A new Tory rebellion broke out after Truss refused to commit to uprating benefits in line with inflation next year, reversing a promise previously given by her predecessor Boris Johnson.
The prime minister is looking at increasing benefits in line with average earnings growth rather than inflation, saving billions of pounds for the exchequer.
Average earnings growth including bonuses was 5.5 per cent between May and July, according to the latest official figures, while inflation is almost twice as high at about 10 per cent.
In a breach of collective responsibility, Penny Mordaunt, leader of the Commons, told Times Radio: “I’ve always supported — whether it’s pensions, whether it’s our welfare system — keeping pace with inflation.”
Truss needs to fund about £43bn of tax cuts, after about £2bn was reduced from the original bill following the U-turn on cutting the top tax rate. But even rightwing supporters — including former Brexit minister Lord David Frost — have urged her not to try to balance the books by cutting the real incomes of Britain’s poor.
Torsten Bell, director of the Resolution Foundation, tweeted: “Two things are pretty clear — the government wants to cut benefits to help fill [a] big fiscal hole and they can’t win any votes to do so.”
There was also confusion over the timing of the publication of the government’s debt-cutting plan, which will be set out alongside official forecasts, with chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng saying November 23 remained the planned date.
But his allies confirmed a report in the Financial Times that he was looking to bring it forward to later this month. “It will be done by November 23,” said one. “If we can bring it forward, we will try to do that.”
Treasury insiders said a change in date would first have to be notified to parliament, which does not return until October 11.
Kwarteng’s “mini-Budget”, which also removed the cap on bankers’ bonuses, appears to have been badly received in many of the working-class seats captured by the Conservatives under Johnson in 2019.
A survey by Redfield & Wilton Strategies in “red wall” seats in the North of England and the Midlands, gave Labour a 38-point lead over the Conservatives, up from 15 points two weeks ago.
A survey by JLPartnersPolls asked the public what words they associated with the prime minister; the most common was “incompetent”, closely followed by “useless” and “untrustworthy”.
Grant Shapps, former transport secretary, told The News Agents podcast that it was possible the Conservatives could change leader again if Truss “does badly”.