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Liz Truss’s government was not functioning: Conservative MPs must resolve this situation 

This country needs a fully functioning government which is focused on the problems people are facing

This country needs a fully functioning government which is focused on the problems people are facing, writes Emma Norris 

Liz Truss has resigned after just 44 days as prime minister. For much of that time, her government was not functioning. She had already lost her chancellor and home secretary before seemingly losing control of her party. Conservative MPs were unsure if a Commons vote on fracking was being treated as a confidence vote or whether they would lose the whip by failing to back the government. More than 40 Conservative MPs defied the government – a mixture of principled objections to fracking, like that of Chris Skidmore MP, and others possibly just tired or confused by the mess.  

The fracking vote should not have been especially difficult – the government had already offered compromises on local consent and Conservative MPs should have been motivated to stop Labour taking over the order paper. Given the meltdown it caused, it is hardly surprising that Truss has concluded she could no longer control the number of Conservative MPs necessary to get tough legislation through, and a timetable of just one week has been set for the Conservative Party to choose a new leader. For government to function, Conservative MPs must unite around Truss's successor. If they cannot, then a general election is unavoidable.

The crisis in government is taking attention away from governing

There are immeasurably more difficult decisions coming – not least the budget and finance bills which will presumably still contain spending cuts and tax increases. For the Truss government to have been functional, the prime minister needed the support of the cabinet. A core part of Truss and Jeremy Hunt’s plans to stabilise the markets required secretaries of state for defence, work and pensions, health and education to sign up to spending cuts, and there was no sign that they had the authority to achieve this. Even if the medium-term fiscal plan due on 31 October is delayed, any new prime minister will face the same problems.   

The chaos surrounding Truss's leadership and now the search for a successor is also pulling attention away from governing. Good government is not a lofty ideal – it matters. It can be the difference between people making it through difficult times or being unable to pay bills, between getting the healthcare they need or going without. Citizens need a prime minister and a government that is focused on the crises before them – responding to rocketing inflation that has seen prices soar, the winter seasonal illnesses hitting the NHS at a time when it is already facing record backlogs, waiting times and staff vacancies; and a war in Europe.   

Then there is the normal business of government that is being neglected. Some of the work of governing will continue in the background – but not all of it. Little attention was given to Dr Bill Kirkup’s newly published report into the latest round of shocking failings in NHS maternity services – it took almost a full 24 hours before the health secretary issued a response. Today, the final report of the Independent Inquiry into Childhood Sexual Abuse is published. For now at least, it will not receive the considered attention it needs and deserves.

Conservative MPs have a duty to end the chaos in government

As the political crisis continues to grip government, a gulf has grown between the ministers and the citizens they are appointed to serve. And the problems facing those citizens require total government attention, not a government which is struggling to win votes, to give clear answers on policy directions, or to provide basic ministerial stability. 

Conservative MPs have a responsibility to close this gulf and to resolve a period in which Liz Truss had not been capable of leading a functioning government. Having failed to come together behind the outgoing prime minister, they must now unite behind whoever wins this compressed leadership contest. If they cannot do so then, as we saw in 2019, the British constitution will find a way to bring an untenable situation to a close with a general election. Conservative MPs will not want to take that path – and it would come with its own problems – but the country needs a functioning government. The departure of Liz Truss must bring an end to the scenes of chaos. The situation needs to be resolved: with a new prime minister capable of leading a functioning government or, if that fails, a general election.

Prime minister
Truss government
Public figures
Liz Truss
Institute for Government

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04 OCT 2022 Comment

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