LONDON (AP) — U.K. government ministers implored Conservative colleagues to rally behind Prime Minister Liz Truss after a disastrous start to her premiership that has left the governing party demoralized and divided.
Cabinet minister Nadhim Zahawi told the BBC that with two years or less until the next general election, the party should “get behind Liz because division will cause delay, delay is our enemy, and ultimately (means) defeat.”
House of Commons leader Penny Mordaunt, one of the Conservatives who ran against Truss this summer to replace Boris Johnson as the party’s leader and the U.K.’s prime minister, said in an article for the Sunday Telegraph that “division will only play into the hands of those who would take our country in the wrong direction.”
Home Secretary Suella Braverman wrote in a piece the Sun newspaper published Sunday that “the choice for my colleagues and for us is as party is simple: Back Liz or get (Labour Party leader) Keir Starmer, hand-in-hand with (Scottish National Party leader) Nicola Sturgeon.”
A misfiring economic plan that sparked turmoil on financial markets marred Truss’ tumultuous first month in office and threw her party into disarray. Both Braverman and Mordaunt openly disagreed with Truss during the party’s fractious annual conference last week.
The pleas for unity come as lawmakers are set to return to Parliament on Tuesday from a two-week break. Conservative legislator Mel Stride, who heads the House of Commons Treasury Committee, said the party mood is “fairly febrile.”
“There are a lot of backbenchers and indeed members of the government who are very concerned at where we are in the polls,” he told Times Radio.
Truss was elected Conservative leader on Sept. 5 and asked to form a government by Queen Elizabeth II the next day, two days before the monarch’s death. She wants to reshape Britain’s economy through tax cuts and deregulation in a bid to end years of sluggish growth.
But her bold first move — 45 billion pounds ($50 billion) in tax cuts, to be funded by government borrowing – spooked financial markets and sent the pound plunging to a record low against the dollar.
The Bank of England was forced to intervene to prop up the bond market and stop a wider economic crisis. The prospect of a big rate hike from the central bank next month has sent the cost of mortgages for many homeowners soaring.
The financial turmoil has helped the opposition Labour Party take a commanding lead in opinion polls. A national election does not have to be held until 2024, but many Conservatives fear the party is running out of time to close the gap.
Opposition from inside the party forced Truss to U-turn on part of her tax cuts package, but she has vowed to “stay the course” on the rest of her plan, despite economists’ warnings that big public spending cuts will be needed to pay for lower taxes.
The government has suggested it could raise pensions and welfare benefits by less than the rate of inflation – a real-terms cut. But many Conservatives say that will hurt some of society’s poorest people, already struggling with the soaring cost of living.
Truss also faces a growing Conservative rebellion over reported plans to weaken planning rules and environmental protections as part of her push to get the economy growing.
Despite the calls for unity, some Tory lawmakers are mulling ways to topple Truss, who was elected by the party after Johnson was forced out in July amid a welter of ethics scandals.
Most think that changing leader again so soon would be disastrous, but some allies of Johnson have hinted that he might consider making a comeback.
Lawmaker Nadine Dorries, a backer of the former leader, told the BBC that Johnson’s return was “extremely unlikely,” but not impossible.
“I have been in politics a long time,” she said. “I don’t rule anything out.”
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Jill Lawless, The Associated Press