Antony Mullen, David Jeffery, Sam Blaxland

Over the last two months we have witnessed unprecedented turmoil at the top of the Conservative Party.

Only recently, we wrote on this blog that Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak had presented different interpretations of Thatcherism to the Conservative Party members that would decide which of them would become the next Party Leader and, therefore, Prime Minister. It was Truss’ ‘low-tax, high-growth’ vision that appeared victorious.

In seeking to explore this battle of ideas, and subsequent responses to the Truss programme for government, the PSA Conservatism Studies Group released a call for papers for our January 2023 conference ‘Conservatisms’. That call for papers referred to Truss’ premiership as being in its infancy.

Now, though, Truss’ vision is defeated; her premiership is over. The call for papers requires radical revision to reflect that the person who seemed to be taking the Conservatives in a new direction just several weeks ago has already been deposed and become the shortest serving Prime Minister in our history.

Even before her resignation, Truss’ ideas were torn up by Jeremy Hunt – the Chancellor who was brought in to establish market confidence in a government that had lost credibility because of his predecessor (and who, in a remarkable televised address, ripped up much of the Prime Minister’s agenda).

The delivery of Truss and Kwarteng’s polices was not the only issue. The vote on fracking which may or may not have been a vote of confidence in the government saw the widely reported resignation and un-resignation of the Chief Whip and her deputy. Tens of Conservatives rebelled despite the threat, including former Prime Minister Theresa May and the newly former Chancellor, Kwarteng. To add comedy to the chaos, Truss herself was not recorded as having voted.

Truss became the Leader of the Conservative Party following a long and drawn-out leadership contest which lasted longer than her premiership did. A total of 11 people put themselves forward in that contest and all but Rehman Chishti, who briefly served as a Foreign Office minister under Boris Johnson after the exodus of serious ministers, received the backing of at least some fellow MPs.

Eventually, the parliamentary Conservative Party narrowed the contest down to Rishi Sunak, who received the most support throughout, Penny Mordaunt who followed in second, and eventual winner Truss who lagged in third place until the final round when she overtook Mordaunt.

It is speculated by those such as broadcaster Iain Dale, who is close to a former leadership candidate, that Rishi Sunak’s camp ‘loaned’ Truss votes to ensure the final contest was Sunak vs Truss, excluding Mordaunt from the final two. Truss had, after all, only received the support of 50 MPs in the first round, compared to 88 for Rishi Sunak and 67 for Penny Mordaunt.

Following the parliamentary round of the contest, Truss and Sunak went head-to-head in 12 hustings over a period of a month before members cast their votes.

The contest which saw Truss replaced with Sunak with a much briefer affair.

The 1922 Committee set the threshold for MPs to reach the ballot paper at 100 nominations, meaning a maximum of three contenders could go forward, and a timetable which meant it would be over within a week. The bar, it seemed, was set deliberately high to facilitate a coronation rather than a contest.

CCHQ organised no hustings and intended to conduct the vote among members, had there been one, entirely online. Activists spent a weekend telephoning elderly members without email addresses to arrange alternative provisions.

In the end, this was needless. The touted return of Boris Johnson – who was definitely going to stand, according to allies like James Duddridge and Jacob Rees Mogg – did not materialise. As in 2016, Johnson recognised that this was not his time. Several of his key supporters, including Duddridge, piled in behind Sunak.

Only Penny Mordaunt remained and, literally at the last minute, withdrew having not quite reached 100 nominations (reportedly having stalled at 97).

Rishi Sunak became Leader by default as the only valid nominee and, the following day, Prime Minister.

At the heart of this episode is an issue with party members selecting a party’s leader, particularly whilst that party is in government.

In the end, the will of the parliamentary party was realised. Conservative MPs had shown no strong indication that they wished to be led by Truss. Many of them supported her at Johnson’s instruction, to stop Sunak. Others because it was apparent, in a ‘Liz v Rishi’ contest, that it would be her handing out the ministerial jobs.

The notion of party members selecting a party leader and, in this case, the Prime Minister is a very recent innovation. It is also one which does not sit comfortably with our constitutional norms, whereby a party leader must command the confidence of their MPs. Yet Truss, who had such little support among parliamentary colleagues initially, won the leadership by appealing to the Conservative membership, which was at odds with the party’s MPs.

Truss’ lack of genuine support among MPs, rather than those who had backed her for personal or strategic reasons (i.e. stopping Sunak) was always going to be a problem for her authority in parliament. Only 50 had backed her from the start – and even some of those had lost confidence in her after a matter of weeks.

The call for papers for 'Conservatisms: The UK Conservative Party and 'True' Conservatism' is available here:

Antony Mullen (Bolton) and David Jeffery (Liverpool) are the co-Convenors of the Conservativism Studies Group and Sam Blaxland (UCL) is the group’s Research and Impact Officer.