Liz Truss’s government was tonight rocking on its foundations, after a day of chaos which saw the shock dismissal of her home secretary followed within hours by the threatened resignation of her chief whip.
Suella Braverman launched a savage broadside on the prime minister after being sacked from the Home Office for breaking security rules, effectively accusing her of breaking pledges to voters and failing to take responsibility for her mistakes.
And there were allegations of bullying in the House of Commons as Ms Truss survived a Labour challenge to her decision to lift the ban on fracking, but provoked chief whip Wendy Morton and her deputy Craig Whittaker into a fury over a U-turn over their efforts to bring rebellious Tories into line.
An instruction that the division would be treated as a vote of confidence, with expulsion from the party for those breaking ranks, was dramatically reversed by climate minister Graham Stuart on Downing Street’s orders minutes before the debate ended.
Eye-witnesses said that Ms Morton, who was undermined by the move, declared her resignation in the voting lobby, as Ms Truss tried to persuade her to stay. However, it later emerged this was withdrawn as Downing Street confirmed both the chief whip and deputy chief whip remain in post.
Earlier, a beleaguered Ms Truss told the Commons “I’m a fighter, not a quitter”.
But she caved in to pressure from angry MPs by declaring that the “triple lock” protection for pensions will remain, just two days after chancellor Jeremy Hunt said it was “on the table” as he considers spending cuts to fill the gaping hole in the national finances.
And her threats to expel fracking rebels backfired after the vice-chair of the influential backbench 1922 Committee, William Wragg, told the Commons he was voting with the government only to avoid his letter of no confidence in Ms Truss being invalidated.
Leading Tory environmentalist Chris Skidmore – commissioned by Ms Truss to lead a review of Net Zero policy – declared he could not vote with the policy.
Reports suggested Ms Truss was barracked by her own MPs as she approached Ms Morton in the voting lobby.
Meanwhile, Downing Street aide Jason Stein was suspended as an investigation was launched into alleged negative briefing against Tory MPs including former chancellor Sajid Javid.
Mr Javid is understood to have been incandescent with rage after being described by an anonymous source in the Sunday Times as “s**t”. He was expected to raise the issue publicly with Truss in the House of Commons today, but withdrew his question to the prime minister shortly after Mr Stein’s suspension emerged.
Senior Tory MP Sir Charles Walker said he was speaking for “hundreds” of Conservatives when he described the events of the day as “inexcusable… pitiful… an absolute disgrace” which reflected “really badly” on the Truss government.
“To all those people that put Liz Truss in No 10, I hope it was worth it,” Sir Charles told the BBC. “I hope the ministerial red box was worth it, I hope it was worth it to sit around the cabinet table.
“The damage they have done to our party is extraordinary. I’ve had enough of talentless people putting the tick in the right box not because it’s in the national interest but because it’s in their personal interest to achieve ministerial position.”
Right-wing Brexiteers were quick to claim Ms Braverman’s replacement with Sunak-supporting Grant Shapps as a “coup” to remove a home secretary who was at loggerheads with Ms Truss over the PM’s plans to boost immigration.
She openly defied the government’s position at this month’s Conservative conference by calling for a return to David Cameron’s 100,000 maximum annual target for immigrants. And she is understood to have resisted reforms backed by Ms Truss to allow migration to increase to fill job vacancies and boost economic growth.
But Downing Street insiders insisted Ms Truss had no option but to act when informed that Ms Braverman had sent a secret government paper to a Tory MP by a private email account on her mobile phone, in what the PM was told was a breach of the ministerial code.
Mr Shapps’ return to government comes weeks after the former transport secretary organised a rebellion against the prime minister and days after he described her chances of survival as like having to “thread the eye of a needle with the lights off”.
It was seen at Westminster as a response to intense pressure on Ms Truss to broaden the political base of her government, following the return of Jeremy Hunt as chancellor and Greg Hands as trade minister.
Ms Braverman presented her departure as a resignation over an honest mistake, and laid bare her rift with Ms Truss by making no promise to support her from the backbenches.
In a barely-veiled attack on the PM, who remained in post despite admitting “mistakes” over the mini-Budget, she added: “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 we have made them and hoping that things will magically come right is not serious politics.”
And in a merciless assessment of Ms Truss’s six weeks in power, she wrote: “I have concerns about the direction of this government.
“Not only have we broken key pledges that were promised to our voters, but I have had serious concerns about this government’s commitment to honouring manifesto commitments, such as reducing overall migration numbers and stopping illegal migration, particularly the dangerous small boats crossings.”
Ms Braverman’s return to the backbenches positions her as a potential champion of the right in any contest to replace Ms Truss and throws into significant doubt any possibility of MPs uniting behind a single candidate for coronation.
Standards Committee chair Chris Bryant demanded an investigation into alleged bullying in the Commons lobbies during the fracking vote, claiming that he saw senior Tories shouting at MPs who were wavering over their decision.
Mr Bryant claimed that Rother Valley MP Alexander Stafford, a critic of fracking, was physically manhandled through the No lobby.
But business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg insisted that, while one supporter of the government had sworn at MPs, most were simply trying to “reassure” members confused by the late switch of the confidence instruction.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “This Tory government is falling apart at the seams. To appoint and then sack both your home secretary and chancellor within six weeks is utter chaos. This is no way to run a government.”
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “It’s time for Liz Truss to accept that the game is up.
“This chaotic government no longer even has control over its own MPs, let alone our economy.”