Liz Truss clings to power as chaos in Westminster escalates

LONDON, Oct 20 (Reuters) - Britain's Liz Truss struggled to maintain her grip on power on Thursday, a day after she lost her second-highest minister and open arguments and urging among her lawmakers in parliament highlighted the collapse of party unity and discipline.

In just six weeks as prime minister, Truss has been forced to abandon nearly all of his policy programs after it sparked a bond market rout and a collapse in his and his Conservative Party's approval ratings.

Since last Friday he has lost two of the four most senior ministers in the government, sitting expressionlessly in parliament as his new finance minister undermines his economic plans and faces laughter as he tries to defend his record.

"We can't go on like this," a Conservative lawmaker told Reuters late Wednesday, of the chaotic scene in parliament.

The sight of another unpopular prime minister clinging to power underscores how volatile British politics have been since the 2016 vote to leave the European Union unleashed a battle for the country's direction.

Truss became Britain's fourth prime minister in six years after being elected in September to lead the Conservative Party by its members, not the wider electorate, and with the support of only about a third of the party's MPs. He promised loan-funded tax cuts, deregulation and a sharp shift to the right on cultural and social issues.

His sudden loss of authority comes as the economy heads into recession and his new finance minister Jeremy Hunt races to find tens of billions of pounds of spending cuts to reassure investors spooked by Truss' policy proposals.

Government borrowing costs, while lower than at the height of last week's crisis, remain high as investors question who is in charge and whether Hunt will be able to rebuild the reputation of the once healthy UK economy. Crispin Blunt, a Conservative MP for 25 years, told Reuters the situation was so bad that his colleagues needed to allow one person with experience to take control.

"Personal considerations and ambitions must now be put aside," he said, adding that he would support Hunt as leader.

Tobias Ellwood, chairman of parliament's defense election committee, said Truss needed to hold out until Oct. 31 when Hunt was due to set out how he would rebuild public finances. Any explosion before that, he said, would put more stress on the pound.

Other candidates to replace Truss include former finance minister Rishi Sunak - who warned that his economic policies would hurt the economy - or Penny Mordaunt, a minister popular with many parties.


Truss has been fighting for political survival since Sept. 23 when the then finance minister and his close ally, Kwasi Kwarteng, announced a "mini-budget" of hefty, unfunded tax cuts that sent shockwaves through financial markets. He sacked Kwarteng on Friday and accepted the resignation of his interior minister, Suella Braverman, on Wednesday.

With polls showing the Conservatives facing collapse in the next election, some lawmakers say Truss should leave so they can try to rebuild their brand. The others seemed to have given up.

"Unfortunately, it looks like we will have to change leaders BUT even if the angel Gabriel now takes over, the Parliamentary Party must quickly reinvent discipline, mutual respect and teamwork if we are to (i) govern Britain well and (ii) avoid carnage in the next election. ," MP Gary Streeter said on Twitter.

With inflation at a 40-year high and mortgage rates soaring, scenes of warring and devious lawmakers in parliament risk deepening anger among voters preparing for a tough winter with rising food and energy costs.

Wednesday's parliamentary drama was fueled by confusion over whether the vote on fracking was a vote of confidence in the government. Opposition lawmakers said some Truss Conservatives were "managed" to vote with the government.

In the chaos that followed, the government was unable to say for several hours whether the politician in charge of party discipline - the whip leader - had quit. "I think it's messy and disgraceful," MP Charles Walker told BBC television, saying he was "outraged" at the "talentless people" who put Truss in power. Truss' Downing Street office finally issued a statement at 1:33 am (0033 GMT) to say the prime minister had "complete confidence" in the head of the whip and his deputy.

It said any lawmaker who abstained from voting to allow fracking could "expect proportional disciplinary action". Voting results showed that more than 30 Conservative MPs did not vote, including those who were leaving or were unwell. Transport Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who was sent to defend the government to broadcasters and radio stations on Thursday morning, was asked if Truss would lead the Conservative Party into the next election, expected in 2024. "It still is," he said.

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