British Prime Minister Liz Truss described herself as “a fighter and not a quitter” Wednesday as she faced down a hostile opposition and fury from her own Conservative Party over her botched economic plan.
Yet the grim faces of Conservative lawmakers behind her in the House of Commons suggested that Truss faces an uphill struggle to save her job.
Truss attended her first session of Prime Minister’s Questions since newly appointed Treasury chief Jeremy Hunt ripped up the tax-cutting package unveiled by her new government less than a month ago.
She apologized to Parliament and admitted she had made mistakes during her short tenure as the U.K.’s head of government, but insisted that by changing course she had “taken responsibility and made the right decisions in the interest of the country’s economic stability.”
Opposition lawmakers shouted “Resign!” as she spoke.
Asked by opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, “Why is she still here?” Truss retorted: “I am a fighter and not a quitter. I have acted in the national interest to make sure that we have economic stability.”
A package of unfunded tax cuts that Truss’ government announced on Sept. 23 sparked turmoil on financial markets, hammering the value of the pound and increasing the cost of U.K. government borrowing. The Bank of England was forced to intervene to prevent the crisis from spreading to the wider economy and putting pension funds at risk.
Under intense political and economic pressure, Truss last week fired her ally Kwasi Kwarteng as Treasury chief, replacing him with Cabinet veteran Hunt. On Monday Hunt scrapped almost all of Truss’ tax cuts, along with her flagship energy policy and her promise of no public spending cuts. He said the government will need to save billions of pounds and there are “many difficult decisions” to be made before he sets out a medium-term fiscal plan on Oct. 31.
Official figures released Wednesday showed U.K. inflation rose to 10.1% in September, returning to a 40-year high first hit in July, as the soaring cost of food squeezed household budgets. While inflation is high around the world — driven up by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its effect on energy supplies — polls show most Britons blame the government for the country’s economic pain.
Opponents also accuse the Conservative government of sowing chaos by flip-flopping on policy. On Wednesday, Truss reassured retirees that pensions would continue to rise in line with inflation — less than 24 hours after her spokesman said the government was considering removing the expensive pledge as it seeks to cut public spending.
With opinion polls giving the Labour Party a large and growing lead, many Conservatives now believe their only hope of avoiding electoral oblivion is to replace Truss. But she insists she is not stepping down, and legislators are divided about how to get rid of her.
New Foreign Secretary James Cleverly urged Conservatives to give Truss another chance, saying “mistakes happen.”
“What you’ve got to do is recognize when they’ve happened and have humility to make changes when you see things didn’t go right,” he said.
Truss faces another test in Parliament later Wednesday when lawmakers vote on a Labour Party motion seeking to ban fracking for shale gas — a policy that Truss recently approved.
Conservative Party whips said the vote would be treated as “a confidence motion in the government,” meaning the government would fall if the motion passed, triggering an election. The Conservatives’ 70-plus majority makes that unlikely, but the vote will be closely watched for signs of dissent about Truss’ leadership.
Truss’ press secretary said the prime minister was “not resigning” and was in a “determined” mood.
A national election does not have to be held until 2024. Truss on Wednesday appeared to rule out calling an early election, saying “what is important is we work together … to get through this winter and protect the economy.”
Under Conservative Party rules, Truss is safe from a leadership challenge for a year, but the rules can be changed if enough lawmakers want it. There is fevered speculation about how many lawmakers have already submitted letters calling for a no-confidence vote.
Some Conservative legislators believe Truss could be forced to resign if the party agrees on a successor.
As yet, there is no front-runner. Truss’ defeated Conservative leadership rival Rishi Sunak, House of Commons leader Penny Mordaunt and popular Defense Secretary Ben Wallace all have supporters, as does Hunt, who many see as the de facto prime minister already.
Some even favor the return of Boris Johnson, who was ousted in the summer after becoming enmeshed in ethics scandals.
Cleverly said he understood why colleagues were angry, but said “defenestrating another prime minister” was the wrong thing to do.
—Jill Lawless, The Associated Press