Liz Truss was jeered by opposition MPs as she arrived in the Commons after her mysterious absence from parliament on Monday afternoon.
Commons leader Penny Mordaunt fuelled feverish online speculation after she said there was “a very good reason” the PM could not turn up to answer an urgent question from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
But Ms Mordaunt said she could not reveal the reason Ms Truss was “detained on urgent business” – before being forced to deny she was “hiding” after the mini-Budget disaster.
Sir Keir said: “It’s time for leaders to lead. But where is the prime minister? Hiding away, dodging questions, scared of her own shadow. The lady is not for turning – up.”
When Stella Creasy asked if Ms Truss had been “hiding under a desk”, Ms Mordaunt said: “The prime minister is not under a desk. With regret, she is not here for very good reason.”
When Ms Truss did finally arrive shortly before her new chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s statement she smiled and chatted to colleagues, as she was jeered by MPs on the opposition benches.
Labour MP Chris Bryant asked if Ms Truss would explain where she had been. But Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle declined to ask the PM to make a statement. Ms Truss was seen leaving in a hurry 25 minutes after Mr Hunt started speaking.
Earlier in the session, despite her insistence there was a good reason for the absence, Ms Mordaunt appeared unclear whether Ms Truss would turn up at all.
At one point the Commons leader said “she’ll be here tomorrow”, before going on to say: “If she is able to join us this afternoon they [opposition] will give her a big cheer.”
Sir Keir said: “How can Britain get the stability it needs when all the government offers is grotesque chaos? How can Britain get the stability it needs, when instead of leadership we have this utter vacuum?”
Shouts of “where is she?” and “weak” could be heard in the Commons after Ms Mordaunt answered the Labour leader’s question at the despatch box in the PM’s place.
New chancellor Mr Hunt announced on Monday that the government could only guarantee its cap on the unit price of energy – designed to keep average bills at no more than £2,500 – for another six months.
He also reversed the 1p cut in the basic rate of income tax announced by predecessor Kwasi Kwarteng, saying this and other tax U-turns would raise £32bn a year for the Treasury.
It emerged Mr Hunt would create a new council of economic advisers in a further bid to reassure the markets the government was now following orthodoxy and listening to the experts.
‘The lady’s not for turning up’: Starmer hits out at Truss for dodging Commons
In a further snub to Ms Truss’s economic ideas and rhetoric, Mr Hunt told the Commons that he was not opposed to a further windfall tax on energy profits.
“I am not against the principle of taxing profits that are genuine windfalls,” he told Lib Dem leader Ed Davey. “You have to be very careful that you don’t tax companies in a way that drives away investment … we have said that nothing is off the table.”
Mr Hunt was described by veteran Tory MP Sir Roger Gale as the “de facto” prime minister. “The power is in No 11, not No 10,” he told Sky News. “All the shots are being called from No 11. And I have to say I’ve very pleased they are.”
Other critics of Ms Truss said they had been reassured after a briefing from Mr Hunt this morning. Mel Stride, Rishi Sunak’s campaign manager, said the new chancellor “gets what needs to be done and is acting fast” after the U-turns on tax and the scaled-back energy plan.
Another Sunak backer, Robert Halfon, said he was “really comforted” and “the direction of travel is great” after speaking to the powerful chancellor.
One Tory critic of Liz Truss told the BBC that it was like going to see a “psychotherapist” and there was confidence he could “sort out the mess”.
But former Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell claimed Liz Truss has just a fortnight left to save her premiership.
Pressed by Times Radio on whether Ms Truss would lead her party into the next election, Mr Mitchell said: “I think the next two weeks will be critical in determining the answer to that question.”
“If over the next two weeks it becomes clear to the parliamentary party that the prime minister needs to change, or be changed, then the technicalities or the mechanism are not important,” he said.
Angela Richardson became the fourth Tory MP to call publicly for Ms Truss to stand down on Monday, saying the problems with the public finances were “100 per cent down to the prime minister”.
And former minister Crispin Blunt again urged Liz Truss to quit as PM, saying because she is too unpopular to take the “difficult decisions” needed for the country.
It cames as the latest opinion poll showed a staggering 36-point lead for Labour over the Tories, as Sir Keir’s partry enjoyed a futher seven-point swing in its favour.