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Wednesday, October 05, 2022

House of the Goat

For those of us who have been watching the Game of Thrones prequel, House of The Dragon, this week's shenanigans at Tory Party conference may seem eerily familiar. There are no dragons, only goats, but the plotting and the backstabbing is as vicious and as unprincipled as the fictional version set in ancient Westeros.

The Guardian reports that Liz Truss’s cabinet is in open warfare over the 45p tax U-turn and benefit cuts, with the home secretary accusing fellow Tory MPs of a coup against the prime minister.

The paper adds that on another chaotic day at the Conservative party conference, ministerial discipline broke down, with cabinet colleagues disagreeing over key policies and bitter infighting over the decision to scrap plans to ditch the top rate of tax:

In some of the most provocative remarks, Suella Braverman said she was “disappointed” by the U-turn – and suggested Tory MPs were trying to overthrow Truss’s government.

The home secretary was backed by Simon Clarke, the levelling up secretary, but criticised by Kemi Badenoch, the trade secretary, who said talk of a coup was “inflammatory”.

Braverman appeared to be taking aim at the former cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Grant Shapps, who dominated the first day of the Birmingham event by criticising the abolition of the 45p tax rate.

On Tuesday, Shapps suggested Truss had about 10 days to turn things around and signalled MPs may try to remove her if polls continued to show Labour on course for a landslide majority.

While claiming he wanted Truss to succeed, he told Times Radio: “I don’t think members of parliament, Conservatives, if they see the polls continue as they are, are going to sit on their hands. A way would be found to make that change.”

Battle lines were also drawn over Truss’s refusal to rule out saving £4bn a year by raising benefits in line with earnings rather than inflation – a real-terms cut that could further squeeze the poorest.

Braverman came out strongly in favour of the idea of cuts, hitting out at what she termed the UK’s “Benefits Street culture”, saying there needed to be “more stick” to get “a stubborn core who see welfare as the go-to option” back into work.

However, two other cabinet ministers, Penny Mordaunt and Robert Buckland, along with the Brexit hardliner David Frost, broke ranks to say they did not support the idea of failing to increase benefits in line with inflation.

One cabinet minister also said they thought Chloe Smith, the work and pensions secretary, was on the same page, and privately colleagues thought the policy did not command the support of the parliamentary party.

At a fringe event for the free-market thinktank the Institute of Economic Affairs, Kwasi Kwarteng, the chancellor, was non-committal on welfare cuts and appeared to be keen to dial down the row, though a review will take place into the uplift.

“I think you do have an obligation to vulnerable people,” he said, citing the energy price freeze. He added: “I’m not gonna get drawn into debates around benefits … but I would make a broad point that we are a humane society. Compassionate conservatism is a good phrase. And it’s something that I think we do have a duty to look after vulnerable people.”

With open disputes over the government’s tax and spending plans, Kwarteng caused further confusion by publicly dismissing the idea that he would bring forward his 23 November fiscal plan to calm the markets. At the same time, Downing Street sources were briefing that he would try to make the statement this month instead of next, if possible.

The stakes for Liz Truss's speech today have never been higher. If she doesn't use it to assert some control over her cabinet colleagues, then she may not even reach Christmas as party leader and prime minister.
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