A UK government minister insisted Liz Truss was “not under a desk” hiding from MPs after the prime minister was urged to quit at an exchange in parliament from which she was absent without clear explanation.
Shouts of “where is she?” and “weak” could be heard in the House of Commons after Penny Mordaunt deputised for Ms Truss to respond to an urgent question on the UK prime minister’s decision to appoint a new chancellor.
Ms Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons and a former leadership candidate who made it to the fifth ballot in July, said: “With apologies to the leader of the Opposition and the House, the PM is detained on urgent business… and I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with me.”
Labour leader Keir Starmer mocked Ms Truss as he said: “The lady is not for turning up”, a reference to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to contemplate a U-turn in the early days of her own premiership.
He said the prime minister has no mandate, adding: “How can Britain get the stability it needs when all the government offers is grotesque chaos?
“How can Britain get the stability it needs, when instead of leadership we have this utter vacuum?
Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, said it is the job of the prime minister to take big decisions on many issues before adding: “All we know right now is, unless she tells us otherwise, the Prime Minister is cowering under her desk and asking for it all to go away.
“Isn’t it about time she did and let somebody else who can make decisions in the British national interest get in charge instead?”
[ UK budget U-turns: Hunt scraps almost all tax cuts and limits energy price cap to calm markets ]
Ms Mordaunt replied: “Well, the prime minister is not under a desk, as the honourable lady says…”
The minister could barely be heard at this point due to laughter and heckling from opposition MPs.
Ms Mordaunt added: “I can assure the House that, with regret, she is not here for a very good reason.”
The exchange came before a poll published Monday showed Labour leading the Conservatives by 36 points, a gap that would lead to the end of 12 years of power and widespread loss of seats for Conservative MPs.
The margin is the biggest enjoyed by any UK party in a quarter of a century, polling company Redfield and Wilton Strategies said in a statement. It put Labour on 56 per cent and the Tories on 20 per cent.
Polling expert John Curtice said that historical precedent means the Conservative party cannot win the next election, and that the challenge facing the government was the combination of both Black Wednesday and the 1976 crisis when the Labour government was forced to seek an IMF bailout.
In an interview with GB News, Prof Curtice said: “In the wake of Black Wednesday, that Conservative administration was unable ever to recover politically. Its reputation for economic competence was trashed. It suffered a 7.5 points swing in the polls within a month and that then got even bigger to the kinds of numbers that we’ve now been seeing in the wake of this crash and, of course, John Major became a deeply unpopular prime minister.”
Earlier, Ms Mordaunt defended the prime minister’s decision to appoint Jeremy Hunt as chancellor in place of Kwasi Kwarteng, saying it was the “right thing to do” and “it took courage”.
She went on to say Mr Starmer had not stuck by pledges he made in his own leadership campaign.
Ms Mordaunt also apologised in the Commons that the events leading to the changes have “added to the concerns” about the “major volatility” in the economy.
Jeremy Hunt, the new chancellor, earlier scrapped much of the UK government’s plans announced in the so-called mini-Budget in an effort to calm markets and prevent turmoil from impacting the real economy.
Ms Truss appeared later in the chamber as Mr Hunt outlined his plans to MPs. In addition to rolling back much of the government’s initial agenda, he announced the formation of a new economic advisory council to provide “more independent expert advice”.
The new chancellor denied that he retained the ambition to become prime minister himself. Sky News reported that the new Chancellor urged Tory MPs to “give her a chance” and said the country does not need more instability in an interview with the broadcaster.
On the question of whether he sought the top job, he said: “I rule it out, Mrs Hunt rules it out, three Hunt children rule it out.”
On Monday evening, the prime minister told the One Nation group of moderate MPs that “mistakes have been made” as she battled to restore a semblance of unity amid widespread discontent.
Conservative party chairman Jake Berry told journalists the Ms Truss was focused on “bringing the party together”. He added: “Matt Hancock made a really good intervention, saying that now is the time for unity.” —PA/Guardian
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