The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Liz Truss became the shortest-serving prime minister in U.K. history

British Prime Minister Liz Truss announces her resignation outside 10 Downing Street on Thursday. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)
7 min

LONDON — She campaigned for prime minister as the ideological incarnation of the 1980s Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, as a strong, plain-speaking woman in pearls, who would finally unleash Britain’s true post-Brexit potential by slashing taxes for investors and corporations, and getting the workers to work a bit harder.

The once-triumphalist Liz Truss resigned on Thursday in humiliation, after 45 days in office, becoming not a modern Conservative icon but the shortest-serving prime minister in British history.

Truss was brought down by what is widely perceived as her incompetence, her inability to sell her vision — not just to lawmakers from her Conservative Party and the slim numbers of Tories out in the hinterlands, but to the broader electorate and to currency and bond traders in London.

Her ouster also reflects an ongoing identity crisis among Conservatives — fragmentation that led to the agonizing experience of Brexit and leaves open the question of not only who will lead the country, but in what direction.

Britain is adrift about its place in the world and its relationship to Europe, about how to address soaring inflation and an anticipated recession, and about what to do about issues ranging from immigration to climate change.

Truss scrambled to reverse herself and her supply-side, trickle-down plan for growth, quickly jettisoning top ministers and gutting her signature policy, with its tax cuts for high-earners, investors and corporations, funded in the short term by more borrowing and debt.

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The U-turn helped calm bond traders momentarily and boosted the British currency. But it wasn’t enough to save her politically.

“Given the situation, I cannot deliver the mandate on which I was elected by the Conservative Party,” she said in front of the prime minister’s residence at Downing Street on Thursday. “I have therefore spoken to His Majesty the king to notify him that I am resigning.”

U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss announced her resignation on Oct. 20 after six weeks in office. (Video: The Washington Post)

Conservative power brokers are bitterly divided on who should next lead their party and become the third British prime minister in eight weeks.

The Conservative Party plans to pick a new leader by Oct. 28, after voting by the party’s lawmakers in Parliament and an online vote involving the dues-paying party members — less than 0.3 percent of the British population. Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 committee, the Conservative Party’s parliamentary group, announced a sweeping change to the rules, truncating what is usually a two-month process.

Any Conservative lawmaker can put their name forward, provided they have the backing of at least 100 of their party colleagues in Parliament — a fairly high bar.

Jeremy Hunt, the new chancellor of the Exchequer who has twice tried to become prime minister, quickly ruled himself out.

Names bandied about as possible contenders include former finance minister Rishi Sunak, Truss’s main rival in the last leadership race, who warned that her economic policies would end in disaster — a “fantasy land” he called it.

There’s also Penny Mordaunt, the current leader of the House of Commons, who came in third in the last contest and is popular with the Conservative Party faithful — though in snap polling of the broader public most respondents could not name her when shown a photo.

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Another option: the return of Boris Johnson. Rumors are building that he could mount a push for the rare role of once-and-future prime minister.

His allies told the British papers that he felt it was in the “national interest” for him to stage a return.

A lot of voters might not want Johnson or his party to give it another try. The Conservatives have been in power for 12 years and millions of bad headlines. If there were a general election now, they would almost certainly be annihilated. The opposition Labour Party is up 30 points in opinion polls.

Labour leader Keir Starmer, who hasn’t had to do much more than sit back and watch his rivals implode, called for a general election “now.”

“The Tories cannot respond to their latest shambles by yet again simply clicking their fingers and shuffling the people at the top without the consent of the British people,” Starmer said in a statement following Truss’s announcement. “They do not have a mandate to put the country through yet another experiment; Britain is not their personal fiefdom to run how they wish.”

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But because the Tories, led by Johnson, won a general election in 2019, they don’t have to submit to another vote until 2024. A motion to call for an early election would need at least two-thirds of the votes in Parliament. That would only be possible if the Conservatives support the measure, which they would be loath to do while they are down so far in the polls.

Truss herself should have been safe from another leadership challenge for at least a year. But Conservatives are known for ruthlessly casting aside their leaders. Out went David Cameron for opposing Brexit. Out went Theresa May for failing to get Brexit done. Out went Johnson for a pileup of scandals and for misleading members of his own party, who declared him unfit to govern.

Truss was thrown under the bus for gross mismanagement of the economy, but also because it was quickly clear she wasn’t helping her party regain the trust of voters. YouGov said she was the most unpopular prime minister the organization had ever tracked.

On Thursday, a day after she told Parliament that she was a “fighter, not a quitter,” Truss met with the powerful chair of the 1922 committee, who would have known exactly how many Conservative members of Parliament had issued secret letters of no confidence in her leadership.

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At least 16 Conservative lawmakers had gone on the record calling for her to resign, following a chaotic and confusing 24 hours, which saw claims of bullying in Parliament and the resignation of the home secretary and may have been the final straw for the party.

Among the discontented was Conservative lawmaker Gary Streeter, who tweeted, “Sadly, it seems we must change leader BUT even if the angel Gabriel now takes over, the Parliamentary Party has to urgently rediscover discipline, mutual respect and teamwork if we are to (i) govern the UK well and (ii) avoid slaughter at the next election.”

In one impassioned interview Wednesday night, lawmaker Charles Walker spoke frankly about his frustrations. “I’m livid,” he said. “I really shouldn’t say this, but I hope all those people who put Liz Truss in No. 10, I hope it was worth it … because the damage they have done to our party is extraordinary.”

Truss can be held responsible for six weeks of damage. The previous record-holder for shortest-serving prime minister was George Canning, who lasted 119 days — from April 12, 1827, until his death on Aug. 8, 1827.

In the end, Liz Truss did not outlast a wilting lettuce

“Our lettuce wins as Liz Truss resigns,” declared the Daily Star tabloid, which last week, when things were looking perilous for the leader, began live-streaming a photograph of the prime minister next to a wilting head of lettuce with a shelf life of just 10 days.

News of Truss’s resignation stole the show at the opening of a European Union summit in Brussels, as leaders entering the meetings were asked to weigh in on Britain’s political crisis. There were glimpses of schadenfreude and some sly smiles from leaders who sat on the other side of Brexit negotiations. But leaders mostly kept it classy, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying he hoped Britain “regains political stability very quickly.”

Emily Rauhala in Brussels contributed to this report.

The U.K.'s new prime minister

The latest: In his first speech as British prime minister, Rishi Sunak warned his country that tough economic times — and tough decisions — were ahead. The day also marked the end of Liz Truss’s tenure as Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister, after just 49 days in office.

Who is Rishi Sunak?: He competed against Truss to lead Britain’s Conservative Party after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his scandal-induced resignation in July. Loyalists point out that his candidacy received the most support from his parliamentary colleagues. And many of his economic ideas have turned out to be prescient, those backers say.

Why did Liz Truss resign?: Truss came to office with a vision for a low-tax, small government state. Her financial plan tanked the British economy and politicians from the ruling Conservative Party called on her to quit. According to new polling, only 10 percent of the country viewed Truss favorably.