Spare a thought for British Conservative members of parliament.
The governing party of the United Kingdom thought they had it bad with scandal-stricken Boris Johnson wrecking their poll numbers and turning what was once called the natural party of government into an exploding clown car.
But having spent an enormous amount of energy removing a reluctant Johnson from office this summer, exhausted MPs say his replacement, Liz Truss – just 37 days into the job – seems hellbent on making the bad situation worse.
After her mini-budget – which proposed unfunded tax cuts, huge government borrowing and let energy companies off from a windfall tax – sent the pound tumbling and caused all manner of wider economic chaos, they are faced with the grim reality of having a leader they deem to be more damaging than Johnson but will be even harder to replace.
On Friday morning, Truss’s finance minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, flew back from the US earlier than expected, fueling speculation that the government is braced to make a humiliating u-turn on tax cuts and that Kwarteng is at serious risk of losing his job. Downing Street also said Truss would hold a press conference later in the day.
“Even if you think she’s awful, we can’t replace her this soon,” a former cabinet minister and Truss supporter tells CNN. “I am not optimistic about the future, but we need to try and ride this out and learn from the mistakes.”
The mistakes in question were, most MPs agree, terrible communications from the government and trying to do too many things too fast, without being adequately funded.
“They committed to huge spending, rightly, to help people with energy bills, then immediately started talking about tax cuts,” a senior Conservative says. As a result, they are not “even getting credit for spending a load of money. When you announce policy like this you have to roll the pitch like mad. Why didn’t they roll the pitch?”
In a meeting with her backbench MPs on Wednesday night, Truss was urged to reverse elements or in some cases wholesale reject the controversial mini-budget that Kwarteng, presented just three weeks ago.
The government was forced to U-turn on one of the most controversial aspects of the mini-budget, a cut in the top rate of tax, just over a week after it was announced, despite Truss having defended the policy mere hours before the announcement.
She defended her economic policy, which left the room feeling “like a wake” and “horrific” according to one MP present.
“Nobody cared what she said because they didn’t think she can do anything sufficient to fix the problems she now embodies. And yet she managed to make it worse,” says another MP who was at the meeting.
Truss has defended her government’s policies as the best way to promote growth and investment in the UK economy. She believes that cautious economic orthodoxy has prohibited growth for years and that her tax cuts will lead to a boom in inward investment.
That argument might seem odd to those who followed the actions of the Bank of England, who had to buy up huge amounts of government debt in order to stabilize markets. The program of buying debt is set to end on Friday, but there is speculation that the program will continue and that the government might further u-turn on its own economic policies.
The misery among Conservatives has snowballed for many, who now feel that losing their seats and the next general election is the most likely outcome.
“Anyone who thinks Truss can unite the party is absolutely delusional,” says a senior party adviser. An influential former government aide told CNN that even MPs with large majorities have started approaching them for career advice.
What can Conservatives do?
While getting rid of Truss – the Conservatives fourth leader in just over six years – seems very unlikely in the short-term, it is being discussed as a real possibility for the medium-term. Minds are currently focused on October 31, when Kwarteng will present a fiscal plan, explaining how he intends to balance the measures announced in the mini-budget.
“Ignoring the insane optics of doing this on Halloween, if they can present something coherent that calms markets then I think we have a bit of breathing space and can try to ride it out,” an influential Conservative backbencher told CNN.
But if Kwarteng fails to settle nerves, things could turn very fast. It is possible that MPs will call for him to be sacked. However, doing so could also be dangerous for Truss, who is ideologically tied to her Chancellor to such an extent that cutting him loose would be a tacit acceptance that she too has failed.
If the chaos continues, then MPs will have to make some very hard choices. They know that the optics of removing Truss so soon after she took office will not look good to voters. The calculation they face is whether another leader could turn the polling around and make electoral prospects less bleak.
There is still a lot of time before the next general election, which doesn’t constitutionally need to take place until January 2025. So there is time for polling to turn around. The question is when and how they could remove Truss. Conservative MPs could try and fudge party rules and trigger a leadership contest, though it would be very messy. And there is no guarantee that a new leader could turn around the double-digit polling deficit that Truss is currently suffering.
When discussing removing Truss, it is worth noting that MPs were not talking about a new leader who can win the election. That, they almost all agree, is a long way off. Instead, they are talking about a new leader who can cushion the blow and save as many seats as possible when the election comes.
One Conservative even suggested that a good outcome would be a new leader simply turning things around enough that the opposition Labour Party could still win the next election, but be denied a majority. That, in theory, could force a deal with smaller parties that would undermine Labour and possibly trigger another election that a refreshed Conservative party might win.
This all might sound dramatic to onlookers, given there is plenty of time for things to improve.
That is possibly the best indication of how miserable Conservative MPs are. Exhausted from the battles of the Brexit years and the painful process of removing Johnson, they are now led by someone who they think is getting things wrong but is too stubborn to change.
And as things stand, it doesn’t seem that anyone in the party has it in them to put up much of a fight – now, or anytime in the immediate future.