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Saturday, 23 September 2023
Unprecedented chaos in British politics - and economics
Ian Black

These are uncertain times in British politics in the aftermath of the resignation of Liz Truss, the Conservative prime minister who replaced Boris Johnson only last month. And that of course, is a very British understatement! Turbulent, chaotic, unprecedented and shocking would far be more accurate. Truss was the shortest-term premier in British history: 44 days from September 6 to October 20.

 Truss was forced to step down following the highly controversial “mini-budget” of her chancellor of the exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, who tried to convince the public that over £40 billion corporation and personal tax cuts would be sustainable without any funding. Truss agreed with Kwarteng that that was the right approach to ensure the United Kingdom would become what fans and detractors like to call post-Brexit “Singapore on Thames”.

 Britain is not alone in facing a drastic economic emergency. Truss’s flawed approach has made a difficult situation – coming out of the Covid pandemic, coping with the fallout from Brexit and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – even worse. All European countries face similar challenges but none of the major economies – not France, Italy, Germany or Spain – have poured oil on the flames the way Truss and Kwarteng managed to do.

 Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons, was the first Tory leadership contender to confirm she is running for No 10 Downing Street, promising she can deliver a “fresh start” for the party. Mordaunt finished third in the last race in July. She is reported to have told Jeremy Hunt (who replaced Kwarteng) he will remain as chancellor – and that there will be no delay to his de-facto budget planned for October 31.

 On Sunday, Rishi Sunak, the chancellor under Johnson, announced that he is to run to replace Truss. He is generally considered to be far more experienced in handling the UK economy at an extremely challenging time, though his own wife’s personal wealth is considered a drawback. Sunak, however, resigned – along with 50 other ministers and party leaders – when Johnson refused to step down. That act bolstered his reputation as an ethical and trustworthy politician. Truss, by contrast, failed to step down as foreign secretary.

 Boris announced on Sunday evening that he will not compete as well. He remains a controversial figure not only because of Brexit, but in particular due to his scandalous handling of what is known as “Partygate”  -  the breaking of Covid lockdown rules by the ministers and civil servants who imposed them on the rest of the country. Boris was on holiday in the Caribbean when Truss quit, giving rise to near-hysterical speculation that he would decide to stand again.

 Each candidate requires the support of 100 Conservative MPs. Boris’s potential is his reputation based on his 80 general election majority in December 2019 and his witty, larger-than-life character. He won that impressive number on the catchy if superficial slogan of “Get Brexit Done”.

 According to one cabinet member, the short-term lobbying campaign for Johnson was “very quick and very aggressive”. Several reports claimed that Johnson had asked Mordaunt to step aside in order to improve his own chances of beating Sunak but said that she had refused.

 Boris divides opinion in the Tory party and the country alike. His supporters believe he is the only person who would stand a chance of winning the next election for them. They point out that despite having been ousted in July he still has a mandate. Because of that, they argue that calls by Labour and other parties for a general election would have far less resonance under a second Johnson premiership. But other Tories believe a second stint in No 10 would be even more of a disaster than the first one, and the short leadership of Truss.

 Public opinion also matters in these strange times. On Saturday, even some leading right-wing commentators were arguing that Johnson should stand aside and not attempt a comeback. His time had passed. This was the view of Charles Moore in his Daily Telegraph column. There were signs too that the populist Sun and Daily Mail newspapers were hedging their bets, keen not to back a loser, as they had done with Truss, and seeing the dangers of another act of Tory self-harm. For once, Boris appears to have listening to his critics.

 Labour and other opposition party demands for a new general election are unlikely to happen. Why would Tory MPs vote for their own demise? The Conservatives have become virtually ungovernable. The departure of Britain’s shortest serving prime minister and a possible comeback by her predecessor has created further divisions and infighting in that chaotic party.

 By the end of this week or possibly even earlier, the United Kingdom will have its third prime minister in less than three months. Who will it be? Sunak, as frontrunner, would be a reasonable winner in these strange times, although he will face multiple challenges that will be a nightmare to handle. It feels currently as if Britain is on the edge of a very high cliff. It is hard to be optimistic about the country’s future.