The best course left to the Tories is to oust Liz Truss – and install a caretaker leader

<span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Never underestimate the Tory party. It has confined Labour to just 13 of the past 43 years in office. It never gives in without a fight and is unafraid of ruthlessly toppling leaders. The latest, Liz Truss, has shown herself in just four weeks to have been a major mistake. The party has two years to correct that mistake before facing the electorate.

Related: Liz Truss will fight for her vision at all costs – the problem is, her party won’t | Martin Kettle

The Tories have been here before. In 2003, they ejected their choice of Iain Duncan Smith before even letting him near a ballot box. The party was then defeated under Michael Howard, as it had been defeated when it chose Alec Douglas-Home as caretaker prime minister in 1963 to replace the discredited Harold Macmillan. But in both cases a new leader substantially improved the party’s rating. Douglas-Home proved a healing and popular prime minister who came close to beating Labour a year later.

Truss’s public performances should be treated with care. Party conferences are the best and worst juries of political leadership. Bets on Thatcher as prime minister at her chaotic 1981 Blackpool conference – with cabinet members openly deriding her at fringe meetings – were overwhelmingly that she would not survive to Christmas. She was declared “the most unpopular prime minister since the second world war”. Yet she survived. Likewise, Neil Kinnock was universally regarded as a Downing Street shoo-in by Labour at Brighton in 1991. It was not to be.

That said, Truss left Birmingham this week with a mountain to climb and no evidence of a map, let alone boots or a rope. Until this year, Labour’s lead has rarely been enough to overcome the constituency bias towards the Tories. Now it streaks ahead by 20 to 30 points, threatening the jobs of a hundred or more Tory MPs. Keir Starmer’s Labour party has taken on the unity and sense of seriousness that comes with confidence of office.

By contrast, Truss has seemed toxic. She has exiled talent and dissent from her cabinet – something Thatcher never did – in favour of a bizarre lineup of cronies. With the inexperienced Kwasi Kwarteng at the Treasury, she has proposed a largely rhetorical rightwing revolution for which she has neither a mandate nor an overarching strategy. Her conference speech did something to restore her self-assurance, but nothing to explain why she has invited one cabinet U-turn after another. Reversal on the 45p tax band seems sure to be followed by others on welfare payments, farm subsidies and planning reforms.

Tory MPs – a majority of whom did not vote for Truss in the first place – need to act fast. They should approach their chairman, Sir Graham Brady, and say that Truss has lost their support and must be told to stand down. Yes, the party might be mimicking the bloody treatment of Rome’s emperors, but needs must. The parliamentary party is constitutionally sovereign and has no confidence in Truss.

Brady will say, but who next? The answer should be a leader to restore the party through to the election. He or she should be declared uncontested, as was Theresa May in 2016. This could not be Rishi Sunak, who lost to Truss in the recent leadership election and would anger the membership. Nor could it reasonably be any of the others who also lost. The leader should be presented strictly as a unifier and caretaker.

The obvious candidate is Michael Gove; for all his past infighting, he could be presented as emollient, even detached. He has been a controversial, even mercurial figure. But apart from his turbulent time as minister for education, he has been a moderate and intelligent minister at justice, environment, local government and planning; a rare Tory who thinks more for himself than about himself.

Above all, Gove is not a partisan ranter guaranteed, as Truss is, to alienate the centre ground. He has none of the paranoid need for loyalty that characterise Johnson and Truss. He can perhaps bring back such talent as remains on the backbenches after the bloodletting of the past five years. The party can fight the next election as it should, on the manifesto of 2019, not on the implausible naivety of Truss’s “growth, growth, growth”.

Modern Toryism should be re-established as one of responsibility in office, not of simplistic slogans. Voters need reassurance that the Tories are no longer the “nasty party” or, as Truss’s environment policies would surely make them, the ugly one. As they seek a way out of the present budgetary shambles, they should above all be concerned with fairness. The public might even welcome Sunak back to the Treasury.

In reality, the task for a caretaker leader is not to win the next election, it is to persuade the Conservatives that electoral humiliation under Truss can be avoided. The party needs to rediscover itself, to put the turmoil of Brexit, lockdown and Truss behind it. Most of all, it needs to become a united and effective opposition to a forthcoming Starmer administration. Gove is the person to preside over that transition.

  • Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist