Well, the lettuce won. On Thursday, Liz Truss resigned as British prime minister—both a response to overwhelming public criticism and an answer to the question “Exactly how many times can one person punch herself in the face without tapping out?” And when The Daily Star started live-streaming a decaying, room-temperature head of iceberg lettuce last week, to see if it could outlast Truss, it began as satire. Now that lettuce is arguably the most powerful figure in British politics.
In the end, Truss lasted just 45 days in office before announcing her own departure. The only person who even comes close to matching that brevity of tenure is George Canning, a man who became prime minister in 1827 and then promptly died of tuberculosis. And surely now that record is hers to keep—unless she laces the 10 Downing Street doorstep with land mines in a final act of spite.
Clearly, the news didn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone. Since rising to power six weeks ago, Truss has done an incredible job of turning everything around her into dirt. She met the Queen, and then the Queen died. She held an emergency budget to “pave the way to economic growth,” causing the pound to hit an all-time low against the dollar. She announced her full confidence in the chancellor, then sacked him days afterward. During Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Truss growled, “I am a fighter, not a quitter.” And then, 25 hours after that, she quit. No wonder the King openly groaned in her presence.
As the U.K. recoiled from the news, the rest of the world looked on with barely concealed amusement. French and German papers traced Britain’s instability back to the 2016 Brexit vote, Spanish papers used her demise as a warning for the rising global tide in libertarian populism, and Poland, ever the optimist, noted that she was lucky to have shaken the hands of two different monarchs.
In truth, the writing had been on the wall all week. Truss’s big plan to save her skin was to hire a new chancellor. Not only did she choose badly, picking Jeremy Hunt, the man who came in at the lower end of eight candidates in this year’s Conservative-leadership contest, but Hunt almost immediately started gleefully ripping up every last policy on which Truss had staked her career. All the tax cuts from the emergency budget were wiped out in a single swoop, and a number of policies designed to ease the burden of the cost-of-living crisis were shortened or scrapped. With a shrug, Hunt wiped away all of Truss’s power. From this point onward, Truss was a PINO: Prime Minister in Name Only.
Most people, being in possession of basic human dignity, would have gotten the message and snuck out at this point. But not Truss. Not when the situation presented her with so many new ways to look stupid in front of the world. Instead, she disappeared for so long that Labour had to call her to the House of Commons on Monday to answer an urgent question. And in classic Truss fashion, she dodged it.
At the last moment, she flinched and sent Penny Mordaunt—a Cabinet member and former leadership rival—to answer the questions in her place. And so the debate became more about where on earth Truss had gone. Mordaunt knew, she said, but wouldn’t tell. As a compromise, she offered an apologetic “The prime minister is not under a desk.” Again, the howls of derision from the chamber would have caused most people to scramble to the exit.
“I am a fighter, not a quitter.” Then, 25 hours after that, she quit.
But not Truss. Instead she wandered into the Commons late, only to sit there wordlessly, ashen-faced, and blinking rapidly like a malfunctioning robotic replica of herself, before rising and leaving to jeers of “Bye!” from the opposition party, just 20 minutes later. Yet she somehow survived the day, and things were looking up.
Then Wednesday happened. In time, movies will be made about the events of Wednesday, October 19, 2022. People will take undergraduate degrees in it, as part of a frantic bid to learn from the comprehensive flurry of flubs, cock-ups, and all-out collateral damage of that day. Let’s walk through it as best we can.
The day began with a podcast clip going viral. It featured former Truss aide Kirsty Buchanan explaining that her old boss was so reluctant to take part in the BBC political-panel show Question Time that her team had to routinely invent Truss-family bereavements as an excuse for her absence. “Only minor people like aunts and cousins and things,” Buchanan said. “I’m not talking about, you know, major members of the family.”
Then at noon came Prime Minister’s Questions, where things started to go wrong again. Another former chancellor, Sajid Javid, had threatened on television to speak out against Truss in the chamber unless her adviser Jason Stein was suspended for calling Javid “shit” in the press. Fortunately, Truss axed Stein just before Questions began, not that it absolved her.
Sensing blood in the water, opposition leader Keir Starmer used his remarks to double as the Comedy Central Roast of Truss. “A book is being written about the prime minister’s time in office. Apparently it’s going to be out by Christmas,” he began. “Is that the release date or the title?” Truss’s response was to promise the country that their pensions were safe. Next to her, Hunt—who had spent the previous day saying the exact opposite—ground his teeth like a man suddenly opposed to the entire concept of teeth.
Things got even worse by teatime. Just after four p.m., Truss sacked her home secretary, Suella Braverman, for accidentally forwarding a policy e-mail to a parliamentary colleague. The sacking made Braverman the shortest-serving British home secretary since the Duke of Wellington (who held the role of de facto home secretary while also serving as prime minister in a caretaker capacity for a month in 1834), although by this point who’s counting? As such, Braverman lashed out wildly at Truss in her resignation letter, pointedly writing, “The business of government relies upon people accepting responsibility for their mistakes. 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.”
“The prime minister is not under a desk.”
And then came the evening. At seven p.m. there was to be a motion in the Commons about Truss’s new pro-fracking agenda. However, the Conservative Party whips decided to use the motion as a makeshift confidence vote for Truss, and informed their M.P.’s as much. Fail to vote according to the leader’s wishes, they said, and you’d face de-selection (effectively being expelled from the party).
Come the hour of the vote, things had descended into outright farce. There were reportedly scuffles in the Commons as senior Truss aides verbally and physically intimidated M.P.’s into voting Truss’s way. Tears were apparently shed at the brutality of it all. External investigations into all the reported bullying were promised. The biggest problem here, though, was that one notable M.P. failed to vote according to Truss’s wishes. You guessed it: it was Truss.
When voting began, she was nowhere to be seen. This is apparently because she was busy chasing her chief whip and deputy chief around the Houses of Parliament after they both threatened to quit. One of them, it has been said, was screaming, “I am fucking furious and I don’t give a fuck anymore,” at his colleagues.
In short, Truss didn’t side with Truss in a vote of confidence about her own competency. It was less a fatal blow and more an instantaneous multiple-organ failure. Nobody could survive a day like Wednesday. Even the Terminator would have made it only to mid-afternoon, tops. When Tory Party grandees went to Downing Street on Thursday morning and finally convinced Truss to resign, it seemed more like an act of benevolent euthanasia than anything else.
The question now is who will replace her? Even before Truss resigned, senior Conservatives were said to be locked in discussions to find a unity candidate who could steady the ship. But that’s harder than it sounds; whoever gets the job will be the third unelected prime minister since September. Still, who could it be? Could they formalize Hunt’s promotion? No, because people hate him. Mordaunt? There are still some doubts about her ability. Could Rishi Sunak be brought back from the cold? No, because the party still sees him as the disloyal usurper of Boris Johnson.
Within minutes of Truss’s resignation, one name did inevitably rise to the top. Despite being deluged with letters from M.P.’s urging him to quit as prime minister just weeks ago, Johnson is reportedly preparing to run in the name of the national interest. But if things are really bad enough to necessitate a Johnson resurgence, perhaps we should do the decent thing and take our chances on the lettuce.
To hear Stuart Heritage reveal more about his story, listen to him on AIR MAIL’s Morning Meeting podcast
Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the author of Bedtime Stories for Worried Liberals