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Mutiny: The undoing of Liz Truss

Mutiny: The undoing of Liz Truss

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The inside story of how the shortest premiership in British history came to an end

Why this story?

Wednesday 19 October proved to be the 24 hours that ended Liz Truss’s short premiership. It will go down as one of the most chaotic days in Conservative party history. But it matters more than another prime minister taking the reins in yet another turbulent year of British politics. It matters because for many in the country, that day will indelibly have changed how they think of politics and the kind of country we have become. It was a dawning realisation that, as millions face financial hardship and the choice of heating or eating, MPs once again put party before country to show just how disconnected politics was from the real world. Matt Russell, producer

Transcript

“It has been a night of astonishing scenes at Westminster with reports of jostling, manhandling, bullying and shouting outside the parliamentary lobbies in a supposed vote of confidence in the government. The deputy chief whip was reported to have left the scene saying ‘I’m absolutely F-ing furious, I just don’t F-ing care anymore, before he resigned along with the chief whip. But, we’ve just been told, they have now officially unresigned. The home secretary has, however, definitely gone. In short, it is total, absolute, abject chaos.”

Tom Bradby on ITV News, 19 October 2022

Cat Neilan, narrating: This is the story of a single day in Westminster. October 19 this year. A day when Liz Truss’s career as prime minister effectively came to an end without a vote of no confidence – in fact, without any recognisable process at all – when the temperature in the House of Commons reached boiling point and stayed there, bubbling furiously, hour after hour. A day when discipline broke down, good behaviour was forgotten, and MPs (so we’re told) were bullied and shoved into voting the way the government wanted them to. 

Some people also think it was a day when a dream of a certain type of Britain was finally smashed into pieces. The vision of a low-tax, low-regulation, post-Brexit Britain will be hard to glue together again.

As I’ve reported this story it’s noteworthy how few Conservative MPs have been willing to talk openly to me about it. You’ll notice that not one has gone on record for this podcast, although I’ve spoken to a lot off record, along with various ministers, former ministers, Spads and insiders. It’s a day that, frankly, they’d rather forget. That’s not very surprising. For 24 hours the most successful political party in history turned into a clown show – a joke that travelled around the world.

But that day matters. It’s worth looking back to for what it says about the Conservative party, but also for what it tells us about how we ended up in a world of easy-come-easy-go prime ministers. It’s a day which millions of people will remember for years to come; not necessarily in detail – not what happened moment by moment – but because impressions of it have lodged in millions of minds and made us think differently about politics and the kind of country we’ve become.

So this is the story of a Wednesday last month when Liz Truss’s fate was sealed and, for a time at least, the fate of the country was forced to play second fiddle to a miserable Westminster farce.

I’m Cat Neilan and this is ‘Mutiny: The undoing of Liz Truss’, a Slow Newscast from Tortoise.

*** 

I’m going to give myself some licence to stretch the “day” we’re covering forwards and back to make sense of things, but the heart of it is from when everyone’s alarms go off on the morning of Wednesday the 19th until about 18 hours later when a final, desperate message goes out from Downing Street.

Even though so much of it played out in public, there are still mysteries to be solved. Did Suella Braverman resign as home secretary or was she fired? Did she tell the truth about how her breach of email security was uncovered?

I also wanted to find out why MPs were seemingly told two different things when it came to the vote that night. The whips appeared to have been contradicted by a minister standing at the dispatch box – just what happened there?

Then there’s Wendy Morton, the chief whip. Did she really resign in the heat of the moment as that nerve-shredding day came to an end? And then un-resign an hour or two later?

The first crisis of the day was mostly hidden from view until just before midday. But it started rolling long before that…

On that Wednesday morning Liz Truss woke up already in a perilous position. It wasn’t quite four weeks since the so-called mini-budget, and James Cleverly was doing the morning round, defending the latest U-turn on it and the focus – at least for the broadcasters right at that moment – was on the triple-lock on pensions. 

James Cleverly: Now the point is what we have seen-

Nick Robinson: That was a manifesto promise, Mr Cleverly. Have you ripped it up now?

Cleverly: No, we take manifesto promises very seriously, but-

Robinson: But she said it on 2 October and you’re saying you can’t now say it?

Cleverly: Well, look, what we have learned…

Cat Neilan, narrating: Jeremy Hunt had been chancellor for five days and he’d exuded more carefully calculated gloom than some chancellors do in five years. The triple lock, remember, is the formula which says pensions will rise by at least 2.5 per cent a year, unless average wage rises or inflation are higher than that – in which case pensions will go up by that higher amount. It’s an expensive political bribe aimed at a bloc that votes reliably Conservative. And briefings had been doing the rounds that Jeremy Hunt might, finally, abandon it to save money.

But all that week there had only been one game in town, and that was reassuring the markets that everything was up for grabs in a dash to cut spending. If you’d asked Jeremy Hunt if he was contemplating closing down the army to save cash, he probably wouldn’t have ruled it out.

And, in the background, inside Number 10, a far more personal battle was going on. 

Because on Wednesday morning, all the talk was about how and if Liz could get through Prime Minister’s Questions that lunchtime…

“Liz Truss will face a crucial test of her leadership this lunchtime when she faces her first Prime Minister’s Questions since scrapping most of the mini-Budget. She’s likely to face questions about pensions after Downing Street refused to commit to increasing payments in line with inflation…”

“Not much has happened: she’s sacked her chancellor, appointed Jeremy Hunt as his replacement, he’s junked almost her entire economic prospectus, leaving her leadership hanging by a thread…”

News clips ahead of PMQs, Wednesday 19 October

Cat Neilan, narrating: If the prime minister could get through PMQs maybe – maybe – she could live to fight another day. 

But what hardly any of us knew at the time was that Liz Truss didn’t only have to worry about the attack-lines from Keir Starmer, facing her across the despatch box. She had to worry about an attack from behind her as well. From Sajid Javid on her own backbenches.

He’d got lucky in the ballot to ask questions. And the timing could hardly have been worse for Liz Truss..

Sajid Javid, the former health secretary, chancellor and home secretary who had backed Liz Truss to lead the Conservative party after he’d pulled out of the race, had been the subject of a hostile briefing from Number 10. A vicious briefing, really.

Over the weekend, the Sunday Times reported that Liz Truss had approached him to replace Kwasi Kwarteng as chancellor, but the two couldn’t agree terms.

An unnamed Downing Street source had rubbished the idea publicly:

The prime minister laughed out loud at the suggestion. She’s sat in the cabinet with Javid for ten years and she knows who is good and who is shit.”

The Number 10 briefing against Javid, as reported in the Sunday Times, 16 October 2022

Cat Neilan, narrating: Even in the Westminster rough-house that was off the scale. And the ill-feeling it caused had been stewing ever since. It had come up in a meeting that Liz Truss held with One Nation conservatives two days earlier – that’s the more centrist Tory crowd – and I heard that it had caused a real stink among backbenchers.

Sajid Javid himself had been doing a bit of detective work. And he had figured out that the briefing had come from one of Liz Truss’s closest advisors. 

Jason Stein had been an adviser to Prince Andrew until he resigned before the notorious Newsnight interview. But before that he’d worked with a number of ministers including Liz Truss when she was Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The two of them went back a long way – and it appeared she had been aware of the briefing, if not the exact language. 

It was a bit like Henry II, one of her colleagues told me. She may have shouted in frustration “who will rid me of this turbulent priest” but she didn’t expect anyone to call Sajid Javid “shit” any more than Henry expected his knights to stab Thomas Becket to death. 

As excuses go, that means it’s got a track record nearly a thousand years long of not working very well. 

And it didn’t work very well when Liz Truss tried it on Sajid Javid after the Sunday Times published. 

He wanted more than warm words and a prime minister distancing herself from a careless advisor.

Sajid Javid hit the phones. He called Liz Truss’s chief of staff, Mark Fullbrook, his deputy Ruth Porter and David Canzini.

David Canzini had played a key role under Boris Johnson’s premiership and he’d just been brought back in under Liz Truss to help steady the ship. 

Normally one to shy away from the limelight, Canzini posed for selfies with a leading Brexiteer, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, which she posted to Twitter, and listened in as the PM appeared before the influential European Research Group, whose support she needed to cling onto power. But he was also being deployed to put out fires.

Jason Stein’s briefing was one such fire. The whips had already raised concerns about his “inappropriate” behaviour, citing other leaks and hostile briefings about colleagues. 

But now complaints were going to be taken into the public realm. Sajid Javid made it clear he would use his question at PMQs, the most high-profile moment in Westminster’s weekly schedule, to publicly challenge the prime minister on this very point. 

It was a fraught position for Truss.

Initially Javid was offered a route back to government if he backed down on his plan to name the adviser. 

According to one source, someone floated the prospect of him rejoining the Home Office – perhaps even taking the job held by Suella Braverman. 

But whatever it was, it wasn’t enough. 

Javid had been publicly humiliated and refused to back down. At this point, trapped with their backs to the wall, the team agreed that Stein had to go. 

“The team around the PM – that includes the private office – took advice and we sorted it out. Once a decision was made, Jason accepted it. He is smart enough to read the room and realised it was just the right thing to do – that it would take a deal of pain away from the PM.”

Anonymous insider

Cat Neilan, narrating: But the decision was taken too late in the day. The clock ticked away.

At ten to twelve, ten minutes before PMQs is due to start, Sajid Javid’s name was still second on the list of questions. And then, just a minute into the start of PMQs, the BBC reports that Jason Stein had been suspended.

In the huddle with the prime minister’s spokesman and press secretary immediately afterwards, journalists were told that Jason Stein would face a formal investigation by the Propriety and Ethics Team, which is responsible for standards across government.

Javid had won. The first blow of the day against Liz Truss had landed and it wasn’t even lunchtime. On balance though, things could have been a lot worse.

She had given her firm commitment to the pensions triple lock. She had, by and large, rebuffed Keir Starmer’s attacks. The mood on the Tory benches was sombre, but so be it. She had survived. 

On a normal day, the story about Jason Stein would have led the news. But that was only the start. A trusted advisor had been shown the door – and much, much worse was to follow.

As one source said to me: “Reading logic into any decision made midday Wednesday onwards is pointless because there wasn’t any.” 

As the team in Number 10 were hurrying to cover off Sajid Javid’s threat of destabilising PMQs, there was another storm brewing. And so we roll back to Wednesday morning. First thing between 7 and 8am, Suella Braverman, the home secretary, sent an email.

It was to the backbench Conservative MP and former minister Sir John Hayes. He’s got a reputation in Westminster as something of a Svengali figure, seeking out and mentoring rising stars on the right of the party. As one MP put it, he likes to “seek out the talent of the right”. 

John Hayes and Braverman have been close for many years through their work on the Common Sense group, an “anti-woke” faction of between 40 and 70 MPs set up after the 2019 election.

Sources say Braverman makes very few decisions without running them past Hayes first. He acted, to an extent, as her unofficial consigliere. His attendance in the Home Office was so frequent, says one, that the private office was keeping a log.

Back to the email – as well as John Hayes, Suella Braverman copied in his wife. Or at least that’s what she meant to do. Instead, the email was sent to a staffer working for Conservative MP Andrew Percy.

While it was not a national security document, the email contained official government documents. It has since emerged that it set out controversial plans for a so-called growth visa that would have resulted in relaxing immigration rules.

“Well you can understand now why Liz Truss was so angry with Suella Braverman, because she was sharing widely plans drawn up – top secret at the heart of government – to create something called a ‘growth visa’… it was hoped it was gonna wipe £14 billion off the deficit over the course of five years…”

News report on Talk TV’s First Edition

Andrew Percy weighed up what to do before flagging the breach to Wendy Morton. The chief whip passed it onto the political team in Number 10, who in turn passed it onto Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, and Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office. 

Simon Case investigated and rapidly concluded that Braverman had broken the ministerial code on two counts – maintaining the security of government business, and not disclosing “the internal process through which a decision has been made”.

The view within Number 10 is clear: “You may have conversations with people, but you don’t send documents to people outside government,” according to one insider.

This further stoked tensions between the two women, who were already at odds with each other. The day before, Suella Braverman and Liz Truss reportedly had a heated row over immigration. 

According to the Telegraph

“The Home Secretary was appalled that they wanted her to announce a liberalisation of immigration to make it easier for the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to say the Government would hit its growth targets – a key plank in Mr Hunt’s strategy to restore market confidence.”

“Suella said, this is insane, why are we trying to appease the OBR? Is everything getting thrown out the window?” said one of her allies.”

Cat Neilan, narrating: A couple of hours after journalists were told to expect a clip from the prime minister, visiting a manufacturer of “cutting edge defence, aerospace, transport and automotive technology”, it emerged that the trip had been cancelled. 

And Braverman cancelled what one source describes as “immovable” meetings. 

Sources rubbished the idea that Braverman had “fronted up”, sources say Truss confronted Braverman and told her she must resign.

Although the two had come to loggerheads the previous day, one insider denies that there was a pretext to get rid of her. 

“We wanted a period of calm and stability. There was no intention of asking the home secretary to resign on Tuesday night. It was circumstances – events, dear boy, events.”

Anonymous insider

Cat Neilan, narrating: Either way, another enemy was created. Shortly after being told to resign, Suella Braverman went to see her friend Steve Baker. As one source puts it, she “sulked” in his office before “going against an agreed letter and putting her own out”.

But as she drafted her own version of events, the news was seeping out. The Guardian reported that she has “departed”. And she had.

She was replaced almost immediately by Grant Shapps.

And within the hour, just before five, she published her brutal resignation letter.

In it, she claimed the email did not have sensitive information, but was merely a draft of a written ministerial statement that many MPs were already aware of. She wrote that it was only sent to a “trusted parliamentary colleague”; and she claimed that she had “rapidly reported this on official channels, and informed the Cabinet Secretary”. 

She also dropped some heavy hints about the need for people to take responsibility for their own actions:

“Pretending we haven’t made mistakes, carrying on as if everyone can’t see that we have made them, and hoping that things will magically come right is not serious politics. I have made a mistake; I accept responsibility: I resign.”

Suella Braverman in her resignation letter

Cat Neilan, narrating: Braverman also took aim at the issue she fell out with Truss over the day before: immigration… 

“I have concerns about the direction of this government. Not only have we broken key pledges that were promised to our voters, but I have had serious concerns about this Government’s commitment to honouring manifesto commitments, such as reducing overall migration numbers and stopping illegal migration, particularly the dangerous small boats crossings.”

Suella Braverman in her resignation letter

Cat Neilan, narrating: To put it mildly, her sacking was a major tactical issue. An ardent Brexiteer, Suella Braverman carries with her the support of much of the Right. Liz Truss had effectively lost the support of a huge swathe of the party, at a time when she could least afford it.

Here’s the Number 10 insider again:

“Suddenly that meant you had a whole lot of parliamentarians going ‘hang on, that’s a bit shit’, people who might normally support the government if whipped may not do so because they are angry about something you have done to one of our people.

“It ramped it up suddenly because everyone assumed the worst – that they had a massive row. They hadn’t, but it was being used for other ends. I suspect those who wanted to defenestrate the PM found this quite useful. It was the least damaging thing that was going on – the irony.” 

Cat Neilan, narrating: The noise was building, the storm growing. 

At the time the news around Suella Braverman was breaking, back across the road in Parliament, the 1922 executive committee, around 20 MPs, were holding one of their regular meetings. In it, all but one member agreed Liz Truss “has to go”. 

They were hatching a plan for how to dispatch her with the minimal pain when, in the middle of the meeting, news began to spread of Braverman’s departure. MPs couldn’t believe what they were hearing.

“I thought [my colleague] was taking the piss,” says one attendee. This solidified the mood against her. 

Liz Truss would have known this. She would have known how vulnerable her position was at that stage. She was burning through ministers and her authority was shot to bits. But Suella Braverman had been passing incendiary information, information that could be used to mobilise the right of the party against her. Truss had no alternative but to act. 

In the end, though, it made no difference. 

Because, throughout the day, the biggest threat of them all had been building.

One entirely of Number 10’s own making.

And one that, ultimately, would bring down the prime minister.

***

We’re back at the start of Wednesday morning. The government is planning for an Opposition Day debate, with a vote in the afternoon. The whips had started making their preparations days in advance, including meetings with the deputy prime minister Therese Coffey. On Tuesday they had met with the BEIS team – that’s the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Department, headed up at this point by Jacob Rees-Mogg – and they had decided on a course of action. 

Around 10.30 on Wednesday morning, Conservative MPs received a message from the Deputy Chief Whip, Craig Whittaker.

It was about a motion the Labour party was putting before the house that afternoon on fracking. An issue that had proved divisive among many Conservative MPs whose constituents feared fracking in their neighbourhoods.

How did this vote even come to be? The blame game is strong here. One camp argues that the whips walked into a bear trap; others say it was inevitable once Liz Truss put fracking on the table. Both concede Labour played its hand well. 

Because had Labour won, the opposition party would have been able to take control of the order paper – a far bigger issue in parliamentary terms. And something that would have caused serious problems for Liz Truss. 

As one MP put it, the headlines would have been: “Labour takes control. Truss would be out and the Tories on the brink.” There was no easy route for Number 10 to navigate.

For many Tories, fracking was an existential problem. It is, by and large, a hugely unpopular prospect. It went against the 2019 manifesto that they had been elected on. And Labour attack ads were already drawn up, ready to go out to constituents at the press of a button.

Initially, MPs said they expected the vote to be made a three-line whip, meaning they would risk being suspended if they abstained or sided with the opposition. But that morning, the message they received from Whittaker went even further…

“This is not a motion on fracking. This is a confidence motion in the government. We are voting NO and I reiterate, this is a hard 3 line whip with all slips withdrawn.”

Craig Whittaker, voiced by an actor

Cat Neilan, narrating: In other words, the nuclear option. This was not just a case of MPs being threatened with losing the whip. They were being told: back us or risk bringing the government down. It was a big demand, but Truss had made the whips’ jobs almost impossible in her first act as prime minister. 

In sacking even those she acknowledged were good at their roles, and hiring only from a pool of the most loyal, she had ensured that around two-thirds of the party were already against her. 

As one MP put it: 

“The whips were in a predicament. Craig is very good, but Wendy was clearly out of her depth. I like her, she’s a kind woman. But MPs just didn’t care. They didn’t believe the threat. They thought it wouldn’t happen. It was total mutiny.”

Much like in the financial markets, what drives behaviour in the Commons often comes down to sentiment. People have to have confidence that the whips are in control; whips have to have confidence that Number 10 is on their side. At this stage, neither was the case. And with the Jason Stein and Suella Braverman sagas already rumbling in the background, the day really was only just getting started for Number 10.

***

By 4pm, there was no hiding from how dangerous things were looking for the prime minister. 

As the 1922 executive considered their options for taking her down, as the fallout from Jason Stein’s suspension continued and rumours of Suella Braverman’s resignation abounded, the controversial debate on fracking kicked off.

It’s a reflection of just how fractious and confused the day was that, by this stage, there were three different whipping operations taking place simultaneously. 

As well as the formal operation led by chief whip Wendy Morton and her deputy Craig Whittaker, a second one was being run by then environment secretary Ranil Jayawardena and Truss’s advisers Jamie Hope and Sophie Jarvis. They called themselves “the fixers”. 

It is, says one Tory, “unclear what they fixed”.

Sources said a third operation was run by, among others, Truss’s closest ally Therese Coffey, although this has been denied by Coffey. 

Meanwhile, David Canzini was seen tearing around Parliament’s large canteen-cum-meeting space Portcullis House, but by that point he was “not able to do much”, says one eyewitness.

Having been told that Truss only wants to hear positive things, sources said that by this point, the prime minister and the government’s whips team were barely speaking. 

Had the channels of communication been open, the message could have been passed back that Morton and Whittaker felt increasingly confident that, though it would be difficult, they had the numbers. 

At around 6:30pm, Canzini checked in with the team, but it was too late. Number 10 blinked. The decision was taken to downgrade the instruction to MPs from a confidence matter to a simple three-line whip. 

This was passed onto climate minister Graham Stuart, who was told by Number 10 to make clear the change to MPs as he wound up the debate. 

Speaking at 6:50pm, Stuart tells the House:

Graham Stuart: Quite clearly, Madam Deputy Speaker, this is not a confidence vote, but it is an attempt by Her Majesty’s… [interrupted] Obviously, Madam Deputy Speaker, this is not a confidence vote; what it is is an attempt…

This is, says one source, not how things are done. Not only do you change the instruction at your peril – showing a weak hand and further undermining confidence – you do not do it in such a public forum. 

Wendy Morton and Craig Whittaker walk out of the chamber, feeling totally undermined. 

At 6:59pm – as the division bell rang, alerting MPs to begin voting – sources say Morton resigned. 

Things were rapidly deteriorating. Most MPs had missed the memo. 

By the time Stuart had downgraded the command, just a handful of his colleagues were in the chamber – no more than 40 MPs. 

The rest of them were in their offices, or in one of Parliament’s many watering holes, waiting to vote as instructed. Most of them do so without knowing the instruction has changed. 

“MPs were coming out, having voted and getting told by members of the lobby and other MPs that it was not a confidence vote, and they were saying ‘no, it was’ because they hadn’t seen Stuart.”

“There was this total feeling of chaos on Wednesday evening. MPs were livid, livid, livid.”

Tories were at this point “openly saying ‘I am putting in a letter’” witnesses say. 

Throughout the day the tally of letters has been mounting. Steve Double on Times Radio had gone public that morning.

William Wragg later announced to the Commons at lunchtime his own loss of confidence

“The fracking debate that follows has been made a confidence vote. If I vote aas I would wish, then I would lose the whip. I would no longer be a Vice Chair of the 1922 Committee. I would no longer maintain a position as a chair of one of the select committees of the House. And indeed, because of that, my letter lodged with my honourable friend, the member for Altrincham and Sale West would fall – and I wish to maintain that letter with my honourable friend.”

William Wragg

And this was just the tip of the iceberg. While the whips were officially estimating the number of letters at 25, the reality was “almost certainly close to 100 at that point – a total collapse brought about by total ineptitude,” says a source. And this is where things get really hazy. The turmoil builds. 

Labour MP Chris Bryant claimed he saw cabinet ministers including Therese Coffey – who, remember, was running one of the three whipping operations – “manhandling” MPs to get them to vote in support of the government. This is strenuously denied by Coffey’s team.

In the jostling, Liz Truss appeared. She still hasn’t accepted Morton’s resignation, and in the melee of MPs, was trying to persuade her to take it back.

One MP told us [voiced by an actor]: “I was just going to vote and I saw the PM storm down the lobby and I hadn’t clocked what was going on. Chief was just in front of me and the PM shouted “Wendy!” then forcibly grabbed her by the arm and shoved her forward.”

But she did not succeed: word was spreading that the chief had quit. 

Meanwhile her deputy, Whittaker, has burst out of the lobby saying: “I am fucking furious and I don’t give a fuck anymore.” This was quickly reported. It even made it onto German TV.

And in the maelstrom of it all, it turns out the prime minister herself had forgotten to swipe her card to register her own vote on an issue that, just minutes earlier, was a confidence vote in her government.

There are also rumours that Truss’s security team had briefly lost her: “They were quickly walking around checking exits,” says one MP. ”It was surreal.” 

MPs were apoplectic with embarrassment…

“This whole affair is inexcusable, it is just a pitiful reflection on the Conservative parliamentary party at every level. It is an absolute disgrace. As a Tory MP of 17 years who has never been a minister, who has got on with it loyally most of the time, I think it’s a shambles and a disgrace. I think it is utterly appalling. I’m livid, and d’you know, I really shouldn’t say this but I hope all those people who put Liz Truss in Number 10, I hope it was worth it – I hope it was worth it for the ministerial red box, I hope it was worth it to sit round the cabinet table, because the damage they have done to our party is extraordinary…

“I’ve had enough of talentless people putting their tick in the right box, not because it’s in the national interest, but because it’s in their own personal interest to achieve ministerial position and I know I speak for hundreds of backbenchers who right now are worrying for their constituents all the time, but now are worrying about their own personal circumstances, because there is nothing as ex as an ex MP.”

Sir Charles Walker MP

Cat Neilan, narrating: The day had started off badly and ended in complete chaos. In the immediate aftermath, Number 10 fixers went into overdrive. 

“You can’t continue without a chief and deputy – it was clear they didn’t quite know what their own position was but Thursday was a sitting day, so that had to be cleared up, and quickly.”

Anonymous insider, voiced by an actor

Cat Neilan, narrating: Sources say the chief job is offered to at least two people. But it’s not clear who by, and the offers weren’t taken up. Whoever has made those offers, it wasn’t Truss. She was in her office, persuading Wendy Morton to stay on. 

Number 10, meanwhile, was trying to agree a statement they could send out to journalists, clarifying that the vote had only ever been a three-line whip. 

But Morton’s condition for staying on is that the world is told it was a confidence motion. One source described it as “a battle”. Initially though, there is no victor. Instead, at 9:49pm, lobby journalists receive a WhatsApp message from Truss’s press secretary that simply says: “Chief and deputy chief whip remain in post.”

This was then followed at 1:33am, by a longer message: 

“The Prime Minister has full confidence in the Chief and Deputy Chief Whip. Throughout the day, the whips had treated the vote as a confidence motion. The minister at the despatch box was told, mistakenly, by Downing Street to say that it was not.

However, Conservative MPs were fully aware that the vote was subject to a three line whip. The whips will now be speaking to Conservative MPs who failed to support the government. Those without a reasonable excuse for failing to vote with the government can expect proportionate disciplinary action.”

The whips have won the battle. Liz Truss has lost the war. 

Behind closed doors, the realisation is, finally, dawning on the inner circle that Truss’s time in Number 10 is over. One insider put it like this:

“When you’re a senior politician, and especially PM, you have to be able to see a path or a way in which things will improve. 

“The levers were basically not there because we were waiting on 31st as the next step to get everyone to calm down. You couldn’t go around and have a cabinet reshuffle – that’s not credible. So in terms of the powers the PM has, they were stymied for another 7-12 days.”

“Government is just carrying on – meetings, visits, what have you. But then parliament is febrile. And you know you have to consider there is a danger that people listen on 31st and say ‘I don’t like the PM or the people who are trying to make you PM’ so they will use parliamentary procedures to make that difference.” 

The parliamentary procedure being referred to here is the finance bill, a piece of legislation that MPs would have had to vote on after the budget. 

Even in the best case scenario that Truss can argue the 12-month grace period for all prime ministers should stand – and that seems unlikely given the growing number of letters – the team is looking ahead to a likely rebellion in early November. If they fail to bring her down before then, Number 10 is pretty certain that MPs will use this to do so. 

The gig was up. There was no route out. Truss must resign. 

***

On Thursday morning, the mood was, unsurprisingly, pretty sombre. Truss goes through the motions: she does the morning meetings she couldn’t get out of. Some were on the phone, some in person. She spoke to Wendy Morton about business for the week. 

Eventually, the prime minister is able to break from what was in the diary, and she goes into the cabinet room with Mark Fullbrook, her chief of staff, and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case. By one account, they are “locked in” together for three hours. 

At some point an eagle-eyed staffer noticed that someone had moved the lectern. Word begins to spread that things are happening.

Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 committee and the only man with a handle on the true number of no confidence letters, is called into Downing Street. Truss needs a final sense check and is left in no doubt of the situation over the road in Parliament. According to one source, the gist of the message is: “It’s not good and it’s not getting any better.”

It seems like a foregone conclusion, but they go through the formalities. With a steady flow of letters and irate messages sent in overnight, there are now only two options: face a confidence vote or resign.

A source says Brady leaves the question hanging – the final decision is to be made by the prime minister. Truss agrees it isn’t getting better. The decision is made. 

Jake Berry, then party chairman and Therese Coffey, deputy prime minister and Truss’s long-time karaoke buddy, join them. Eventually Truss calls her husband Hugh O’Leary, who leaves work and comes to Number 10. 

The word is put out that she will give a statement at 1:30pm. Journalists scramble to get to Downing Street in time. And then Truss takes to the lectern, bowing out with a resignation speech that is fittingly short, with only her husband for support. 

“I recognise though, given the situation, I cannot deliver the mandate on which I was elected by the Conservative party. I have therefore spoken to His Majesty the King to notify him that I am resigning as leader of the Conservative Party.”

Liz Truss on Thursday 20 October

And that’s it. Liz Truss, the UK’s shortest-serving prime minister, is out. Even before Graham Brady confirms the process to replace her, the rival leadership camps that supported Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt just a few weeks ago have sprung into action. Boris Johnson is dragged off his sun lounger and flies back to Westminster. 

But it’s too late for the man who would be world king. Johnson and Mordaunt concede and Rishi Sunak swiftly takes the crown, Conservative MPs are quick to sweep the failures of his predecessor under the carpet. The pressure that had built to an unbearable level that Wednesday has been released. Maybe the party can finally unite behind one leader?

Maybe not. Just 24 hours after the king officially invites Rishi Sunak to form a government, the cracks start to show. Suella Braverman’s return to the Home Office invites public criticism, not just from Labour, but from former minister Jake Berry. 

As much as the questions of national security matter, perhaps the more important signal is the degree to which factions in the Conservative still matter. Suella Braverman has got her old job back because – in effect – she still leads one. And it could spell trouble in future. 

Once again, people are asking – how long can the prime minister last? They know this is the last roll of the dice. They cannot eject another prime minister without a general election. But they will not go into an election with a prime minister they believe to be a loser – and they are split over exactly what that means. 

Is it someone who raises taxes to protect the most vulnerable from the coming economic crisis, or someone who cuts them to stimulate growth? Is it someone who tries to project an image of calm, even boring, competence, or someone who stirs the culture wars up further? Is it someone who believes in climate change or someone who believes in coal mines? 

After 12 years in power, Conservative MPs are still spoiling for a fight. And so, with the threat of mutiny hanging over Downing Street once again, the pressure begins to build. 

This episode was reported by me, Cat Neilan, produced by Matt Russell and James Wilson with additional production help by Sean Collins. Sound design was by Mau Loseto and the editor was Ceri Thomas.

We reached out to everyone named in the podcast but received no response…

How we got here

Applying the “slow news” thinking to coverage of British politics in its current state of constant turmoil can feel like a fools’ errand. The breakneck speed of daily life means that, in Westminster, the question is never “what just happened”, but “what’s happening two moves ahead”?

Such is the pace of change that taking a backwards look at events of just two weeks ago feels like writing a history book. There are the agreed facts – those that played out in public – but the rest is contested. Rather than attempt to reconcile the differences, and accept what that says about the state of their world, a kind of collective amnesia descends. Perhaps that explains the reluctance of many participants to go on the record for this week’s Slow Newscast.

It’s a slow motion replay of one day that exposed the factions and fractures of the Conservative party, the treacherous and manipulative behaviour that passes for normal in political life and the acidic farce that in one furious day forced the resignation of a prime minister. As we discover, there is value in going back over those critical moments, not just to understand what took place, but to better make sense of what’s happening now. 

Our reporting tries to peel back the layers to understand what was happening behind the scenes, the personalities that dominate and the decisions that made a difference. Those divisions are not yet healed, nor were those mistakes one-offs. They are baked into the dysfunctional world that has sprung up since the referendum, in which talent plays second fiddle to loyalty – but a loyalty that often is only skin deep. Catherine Neilan, political editor


Past reporting

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