Michael Gove cut a lonely figure on Monday morning as he emerged from his hotel at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham and went for a run.
Appearing from the cordoned-off security area wearing a pair of headphones - and a satisfied smile on his face - the man who stabbed Boris Johnson in the back had claimed another victim in the form of his successor, Liz Truss.
With the Prime Minister seemingly having forced her Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, into an embarrassing U-turn over the scrapping of the controversial 45 per cent tax rate - just hours after Gove had suggested it was “not Conservative” - the former minister naturally appeared victorious.
Yet in appeasing one of the most widely mistrusted figures in the party, Ms Truss has not only succeeded in squandering her self-styled Thatcherite status - but also alienated the very people she relies on most for support.
Conservatives are now openly questioning whether Kwarteng will beat Nadhim Zahawi’s record as the shortest serving Chancellor (63 days) since Sajid Javid (204 days).
But the even bigger problem for Ms Truss is that her entire policy platform now appears in jeopardy. If she has caved in on the top rate of tax, will she be able to get through her other supply side reforms? And if she can’t, what will be the point of her?
As one furious Tory veteran railed: “This U-turn could define this Government. So now the ‘this lady’s not for turning' moment has gone. 'This lady’s not for turning... much’ doesn’t work."
Another raged: “Who does Gove represent in the party? Absolutely no one.”
The former Vote Leave frontman was not the only MP to voice opposition to the mini-Budget, with the likes of Grant Shapps, the former transport secretary; George Freeman, a former science minister, and Sir Charles Walker the former 1922 committee chairman, also expressing criticism.
But as the Prime Minister’s supporters had been at pains to point out, none of “the wets” wanted her to win the leadership contest in the first place - and many of them are carrying the bruised egos of Cabinet rejection.
Moreover, not all Rishi Sunak supporters are happy about the friendly fire, with Victoria Prentis, the work and pensions minister, being among the many voices calling for party unity on Sunday. “As Conservatives we all believe in tax cuts, we’d rather people keep more of their own money,” she told The Telegraph. “I know there isn’t complete consensus on this, these are difficult issues.”
Sadly, the Tories’ habit of forming a circular firing squad continues - even when gathered for a common cause.
On Sunday night, Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt joked that the first day of the Tory conference taught attendees that “our policy is great but our comms is s--t”.
The consensus among Tories both old intake and new is that the complete absence of a proper explanation of the thinking behind the mini-Budget has proved a bigger problem than the fiscal policies themselves.
As the Tory veteran explained: “It becomes a competence issue. Process is where this has fallen down. The rushed nature of the Friday announcement meant they couldn’t consult. No one asks the key question: what’s the worst that could happen?”
Tax cut overshadowed energy bail out
A number of Tory greyhairs have questioned why the Chancellor felt the need to “rush out” the tax cut plan so it ended up completely overshadowing the energy bill bail out. They were incredulous when he then went on to double down on Laura Kuenssberg's show by suggesting there would be more tax cuts to come, only serving to spook the markets even further.
Others have described as “idiotic” the suggestion, which emanated last week as Labour were in Liverpool already making hay with Tory misery, that welfare cuts might be in the offing. A 2019 intaker said: “Talk about making a bad situation worse. Now we’re not only enriching the wealthy but taking money from the pockets of the poor as well? How on earth am I meant to sell that on the doorstep?”
Conservatives are furious that the furore over the 45 per cent rate has wiped out any good publicity the Government could have reaped from its £60 billion energy bail out.
“We have just given every voter in Britain a £400 handout to help with their gas and electricity bills - and all the public seem to be thinking is that we are giving a tax cut to the rich,” added one exasperated Red Wall MP.
As one Tory source put it: “We’ve gone from helping people worried about heating their homes to worrying about holding on to their homes.”
Another added: “The Government doesn’t seem to understand that the interest rate is all that matters to the electorate. Tax cuts are quite esoteric - what people care about is how much they are paying for their mortgage. We’re meant to be the party of home owners, for pity’s sake.”
A major bugbear is the “complete lack of narrative” to counteract Labour’s claim that they are now the party of fiscal competence. “Why isn’t the Prime Minister on the airwaves telling people that if they vote for tax-and-spend Keir Starmer, they’ll not only lose their job but also their home?” said another backbencher.
“She needs to get out there on Wednesday and nail her Conservative colours to the mast or she’s finished.”