Liz Truss’s honeymoon may already be over

If Liz Truss pays any attention to history, she should be worried.

When she becomes Prime Minister next week (now a racing certainty) she will be the fourth party leader to be elected against the wishes of the party’s MPs. Here is what happened to the other three.

2001: Grassroots Conservatives elected Iain Duncan Smith; MPs preferred Kenneth Clarke. Two years later, MPs passed a vote of no confidence in Duncan Smith. Out he went.

2010: Labour MPs wanted David Miliband, but the party’s electoral college system gave victory to his brother. Ed Miliband went on to lead Labour to defeat at the following election and resigned immediately afterwards.

2015: Jeremy Corbyn came fourth among Labour MPs, yet won the vote of party members and registered supporters with a clear majority of first-preference votes. Corbyn fought and lost two elections as party leader, resigning after Labour’s landslide defeat in 2019.

Not a happy record, is it? In contrast, parties have mostly done better when their MPs and grassroots have favoured the same candidate. Think of Tony Blair (elected leader in 1994), David Cameron (2005) and Boris Johnson (2019). The shine came off all three eventually, but each won the first general election they fought as party leader.

Neil Kinnock (1983) and John Smith (1992) were the other leaders to be backed both by MPs and local activists. Kinnock led Labour to two defeats; but he paved the way for Labour’s revival in the 1990s. As for John Smith, his death in 1994 means that we cannot include him definitively in a list of successes and failures.

The three out-and-out failures have something in common. Duncan Smith, Ed Miliband and Corbyn all struggled to command the respect of their party’s MPs and Britain’s wider electorate, and this contributed to their downfall.  

One of Truss’s problems is that she looks like having the same problem. The Conservative leadership contest has been alarmingly poisonous. Can she make peace with Rishi Sunak and his supporters? If she can’t make peace, can she defeat them so decisively that voters see a Prime Minister who dominates her party, rather than being buffeted by her critics? She will have to do one or the other if she is to become the first party leader rejected by their own MPs to lead their party to election victory. Rumbling, unresolved party discontent is a recipe for disaster

One way to improve her chances is to enjoy an early polling boost, which might buy her time to solve her internal party problems. So what are the prospects for a honeymoon bounce? Deborah Mattinson, Keir Starmer’s director of strategy, warns her Labour colleagues to expect it. In a memo leaked to the Guardian, she wrote: “We can expect that Truss will get a bounce of at least 6% if she simply performs in line with the average, which would result in bringing polls to level pegging with Labour.”

Mattinson is certainly right about the record of recent decades. John Major, Gordon Brown, Theresa May and Boris Johnson all became Prime Ministers in mid-term, and all enjoyed an early polling boost. It is certainly wise for Labour to prepare for disappointing figures in the next few weeks.

However, there is a possibility – this is not, please note, a prediction – that things will work out differently this time. The sustained bitterness we have witnessed in recent weeks between the Truss and Sunak camps was largely absent when Major, Brown, May and Johnson reached the top of the greasy poll. The polling evidence suggests that Truss has suffered as a result – not, perhaps, with many Conservative party members, but with the wider public.

Opinium has recently repeated a question it first asked at the beginning of August, when the Truss-Sunak contest had just started: who would the public prefer as Prime Minister, Truss or Starmer?

In the first poll the two were neck-and-neck: Truss 29%. Starmer 28%. In their latest poll, the figures are: Truss 23%, Starmer 31%. Truss’s support had slumped by six points in two weeks. Redfield and Wilton have found a similar fall in Truss’s rating. Last week a YouGov poll for The Times found that only 13 per cent of voters trust Truss to bring down inflation, while 70 per cent do not trust her. Sunak’s figures were better, and Starmer’s much better.

What has caused all this?  The general way Truss has come across during the contest? Her specific  policies on inflation and energy bills? Tory critics accusing her of risking economic disaster? I’m told that voters in focus groups have reacted strongly to news of the leaked recording of Truss saying British workers need “more graft”.

Maybe the poll numbers reflect all these things. That said, things could change. Truss will be able to put all that behind her when she enters Downing Street, and win voters back by what she does as Prime Minister. But maybe, when  historians in years to come are asked whether Truss enjoyed a honeymoon bounce, they  will answer: yes; but it was over by mid-August.

This blog was first published by Prospect