Liz Truss is under massive immediate pressure after securing a narrower-than-expected victory to become Conservative Party leader and the UK’s new prime minister, with backbenchers warning she has as little as six months to save the party from electoral defeat.
Ms Truss promised cheering Tory activists “we will deliver, we will deliver, we will deliver” as she was named party leader in the same Westminster conference centre where Boris Johnson claimed the crown little more than three years ago.
Senior aides confirmed that she is in talks with energy companies over a support package worth as much as £100bn to offset predicted rises in average domestic fuel bills from £1,971 to £3,549 in October and £7,000 or more by the spring.
But already storm clouds were gathering over her premiership, as polls suggested voters are disappointed by her arrival in 10 Downing Street and have scant faith in her ability to resolve the cost of living crisis.
Her 57 per cent to 43 per cent margin of victory over rival Rishi Sunak was the tightest since rule changes put the choice of leader into the hands of Tory members, with her tally lower even than the 60.7 per cent secured by Iain Duncan Smith in 2001.
Home secretary Priti Patel walked out of the government before she could be pushed, after briefings suggested there would be no place for her in the cabinet Ms Truss will name on Tuesday. Close Johnson ally Nigel Adams also quit his Cabinet Office job.
Meanwhile, a leading one nation Tory warned fellow centrists that they risked their political reputations if they were to throw their lot in with a Truss administration, which he warned would be dominated by culture war attacks on “the enemy as woke green remoaner warriors”.
Ms Truss is expected to appoint a heavily right-leaning cabinet drawn from her personal supporters on her arrival in Downing Street, after being confirmed as prime minister by the Queen at Balmoral on Tuesday.
Close ally Kwasi Kwarteng will be installed as chancellor, with Suella Braverman set to take the Home Office, James Cleverly expected to head the Foreign Office and Jacob Rees-Mogg tipped as Ms Truss’s business secretary.
But leading centrists are being lined up for posts, including former lord chancellor Sir Robert Buckland – tipped for Wales secretary – and Tom Tugendhat, believed to be being offered a security role.
A former minister told The Independent they would “regret” joining an administration that would be “a replay of Boris 2019”.
Mr Sunak, who is not expected to feature in the new government, urged his supporters to “now unite behind the new PM, Liz Truss, as she steers the country through difficult times”.
And MPs who backed his bid made it clear there would be no immediate revolt against the new PM, indicating they would give her a chance to make good on her “twin-track” approach of holding down energy bills in the short term while boosting supplies for the future.
An aide to the new Tory leader said she now accepted that a “sticking plaster” was needed immediately, but was insistent that the bailout approach “can’t continue ad infinitum”.
Her plan is still to be finalised, but it is thought it might involve loans to companies, to be paid back over many years as wholesale prices fall. It will be unveiled within seven days and possibly as early as Thursday, while Mr Kwarteng will set out wider plans for tax cuts in an emergency budget before parliament breaks for conference season on 23 September.
Kevin Hollinrake – who previously warned that Ms Truss’s focus on tax cuts rather than handouts would put low-income families “on the streets” – told The Independent that the new PM would not be given “a free pass” by Tory backbenchers.
“We’ve got a Conservative prime minister chosen by Conservative members – the default position is to support the prime minister,” he said. “Everyone knows if we are divided it is manna from heaven for the opposition.”
But he added: “On the backbenches your job is to scrutinise the government. We are not going to give her a free pass. We will be scrutinising her. We can’t have a situation where the people benefiting most from tax cuts are the rich and those hit hardest by energy prices are the poor.”
Liz Truss booed and heckled as she enters Tory headquarters after winning leadership race
A former minister who played a prominent role in Mr Sunak’s campaign said: “We might have lost the contest, but we’ve won the argument. Rishi spent the summer arguing for targeted support for the most vulnerable and look what we are now going to get.
“The issue for Liz now is whether she can finesse the fact that she told the membership one thing and is now going to have to do the absolute opposite. The public may well not notice, but the party will and there will be grumbling.”
Andrew Bridgen, who backed the former chancellor’s unsuccessful bid, told The Independent: “We have had eight weeks of taking chunks out of each other – the country won’t forgive us if we don’t unite. I think we will unite, and if that is not the opinion of all my colleagues then it should be.”
But he said Ms Truss had only limited time to salvage Tory prospects for the general election, which she said would come in 2024, scotching speculation about an early poll.
“Liz said she is going to ‘deliver, deliver, deliver’,” said Mr Bridgen. “We have got two years. The future of this government will be decided in the next six months, on how we get through this winter and this cost of living crisis. People will know by then whether she has been successful or not and the polls will reflect that.”
Ms Truss vowed to govern according to Conservative beliefs in “freedom, the ability to control you own life, low taxes and personal responsibility” and to make good on promises that won Mr Johnson an 80-seat majority in 2019.
“I will deliver on a bold plan to cut taxes and grow the economy,” she said in a brief victory speech. “I will deliver on the energy crisis, dealing with people’s energy bills, but also dealing with the long-term issues we have on energy prices. And I will deliver on the NHS.”
Ms Truss – who later celebrated her triumph with a lunch with husband Hugh – said it was “an honour” to be elected leader by the 171,437 Conservative members, who split 81,326 for her and 60,399 for Mr Sunak.
She paid tribute to “my friend” Boris Johnson, who she said had “got Brexit done, crushed Jeremy Corbyn, rolled out the vaccine and stood up to Vladimir Putin”.
Awkward silence from MPs after Liz Truss says Boris Johnson is ‘admired from Kyiv to Carlisle’
But there was an awkward silence in the hall as she sent a message to the outgoing PM: “You are admired from Kyiv to Carlisle.”
And polls found only lukewarm support for the third Conservative prime minister in succession to be chosen by the party rather than by voters in a general election.
A YouGov survey of 2,500 voters found that half (50 per cent) – including a third (33 per cent) of 2019 Tory voters – were disappointed at her selection. Just one in seven (14 per cent) said they believed she would be a better PM than Mr Johnson and one in five (19 per cent) said they had confidence in her to tackle the cost of living.
A separate poll by Savanta ComRes found that just 18 per cent believed she could unite the country, against half (51 per cent) who thought she could not. Only 18 per cent had a favourable view of the new PM, just 10 per cent thought her party was united and 60 per cent said she should call an election by the end of the year.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said that Truss’s focus on tax cuts over targeted support for households showed she was “not on the side of working people”, while shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said the Tories were like “a gang of arsonists saying to the country: ‘Trust me to put out the fire.’”
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey called for a general election, saying: “Under Liz Truss, we’re set to see more of the same crisis and chaos as under Boris Johnson.”
But Mr Johnson himself – who will make a farewell statement on the steps of No 10 at 7.30 on Tuesday before flying to Balmoral to tender his resignation to the Queen – said his successor “has the right plan to tackle the cost of living crisis, unite our party and continue the great work of uniting and levelling up our country”.