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Yesterday, when Rishi Sunak stood in front of the portable lectern outside No. 10 Downing Street to make his first statement as prime minister, it marked a watershed in many ways. At 42, he is the youngest prime minister in modern British history; he is also the first person of color to hold the post, and the first Hindu. But the significance goes beyond these symbolic attributes: he represents a possible return to stable government after 44 days of unrelenting crisis under his predecessor, Liz Truss, and after six years of political drama.
Truss is an unusual political character: she lacks charisma or force of persuasion and yet still identifies as a disruptor. Ultimately, however, all she disrupted was her own premiership, causing a catastrophe for the Tories. The Conservative Party is one of the world’s most successful political organizations, but it is now in danger of not just losing power in the next general election but fracturing beyond repair. The task of rescuing both his country and his party now falls to Sunak.
The downfall of Truss has been a huge strain on a country already feeling the cost of the economic and political uncertainty that has accumulated over the six years since the June 2016 vote to leave the EU. The continual disruptions in British leadership have rocked the United Kingdom’s standing in the world. The damage is not irreversible but will take effort to repair. The government needs to show that it is still capable of consistency and coherence. It can begin by mending its tattered relations with Europe.
Truss’s exit had seemed inevitable almost from the moment she took office. The turmoil in currency and bond markets following Truss’s “mini-budget” pushed up interest rates and, in doing so, led to a spike in mortgage rates for every person and business in the country. In response, Truss fired Kwasi Kwarteng as her chancellor after only a few weeks on the job and appointed Jeremy Hunt to replace him. In a joke reported around the world, the tabloid The Daily Star ran a picture of a head of lettuce, asking whether the prime minister would last longer than the vegetable. She didn’t.
Enough of her MPs advised her to step down that she could not have acted as prime minister or gotten legislation through Parliament. That is how the famously uncodified constitution of the British parliamentary system is supposed to work. Voters pick a party, not a prime minister; parties have the right to change their leader between general elections. The Conservative Party exercised the right to do this again, and Sunak emerged the winner.
But he still has to battle the question of legitimacy. He is the third prime minister in 2022 (as well as the fifth in six years), and the third since the last general election in 2019. Many voters—and the Labour opposition—claim that Sunak lacks a mandate for his policies and should call an election now. It remains to be seen whether he can use the Tory majority in the House of Commons to get his legislation through and also win approval of the markets. Cautiously, the markets are now bringing interest rates down, but they are still slightly above pre-Truss levels, showing how jangled the world is in its expectations of the United Kingdom and the enduring cost of those six weeks that Truss was in office.
Of all the destruction wrought by Truss, some of the greatest has been on the reputation of her party. Pollsters reckon that if a vote were held now, Labour might get the kind of landslide that it secured in 1997 under Tony Blair. But the Conservatives still have a hefty majority; only if the party now fails to come behind Sunak with enough unity to enable him to pass legislation and govern will the party be forced to call a general election.
At least at this point, that would amount to near obliteration of the party. The question the Conservatives face is how to begin to act like a party again, one that represents a clear philosophy and a set of values around which voters and members of Parliament can cohere. Long associated in voters’ minds with economic prudence, concern for national finances, and the pursuit of balanced budgets, the party hitched itself briefly to a high-spending, tax-cutting philosophy. Truss made tax cuts and spending her priorities; her predecessor, Boris Johnson, had been leaning that way before his own spectacular implosion earlier this year. A clash over economic principles is the reason that Sunak gave for quitting as Johnson’s chancellor in July, triggering the cascade of resignations that forced Johnson out. As chancellor and chief finance minister, Hunt has now ripped up Truss’s strategy, apparently returning to more conventional Conservative principles.
That task of finding a coherent philosophy has been considerably harder since Brexit. The turmoil of the past six years may likely have arisen from the immensely close vote in 2016, which overturned decades-long relationships with the country’s closest trading partners. Brexit has required politicians to profess what is not true: that the British-EU rift—which adds paperwork, time, expense, and uncertainty to trading relationships and the ability of people, goods, services, and capital to flow back and forth across the border—would result in an economic boom.
Brexit did not come out of the blue, of course; it reflected divisions between parts of the country. Some of the discord arose from resentment of London’s glittering, cosmopolitan supremacy in national life. Some stemmed from the chasm that had opened between property owners and those without assets since the financial crisis of 2008; the practice of quantitative easing pushed up the value of houses but left what is now called “Generation Rent” unable to move out of their parents’ homes at all, let alone afford a home of their own. Above all, perhaps, it reflected anger at immigration, particularly outside the booming southeast where a ready supply of workers from the EU has long propped up the restaurant and hotel industry and London’s construction boom. Immigration is a subject that both main political parties still struggle to address with any sense of control or plan about which people the country needs and wants to attract.
On top of that, Brexit brought new strains to the union of four nations, exacerbating the differences that Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland already felt from the English giant at the heart of the kingdom. The people of Scotland and Northern Ireland had already voted heavily to stay in the EU. Those in Wales voted narrowly to leave despite having been a big recipient of EU development grants, but they became deeply concerned about whether the British government would stick to its pledges to maintain support for farming.
The continual disruptions in British leadership have rocked the United Kingdom’s standing in the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought more tensions. The four regions each had the power to set their own lockdown rules, and the government of Wales, led by First Minister Mark Drakeford, effectively shut the border with England for the first time in hundreds of years. Essential travel only was permitted over the bridges and roads that normally link the highly integrated economies of England and Wales. At certain points during the pandemic, pubs on the English side could open but those a few yards away on the Welsh side could not. Drakeford’s measures, however, were highly popular in Wales. Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, tried to upstage the government in London with a stream of announcements over the frequently changing lockdown rules, sometimes just a few hours earlier and with minor differences, which strained the consultation process between the two governments.
In the end, it was the lockdown restraints that led to the departure of Johnson. Reluctant to impose them on the country, he proved unwilling or unable to impose them on himself, and the torrent of revelations about parties and gatherings in Downing Street—when the public had been prevented from gathering at funerals or weddings—undermined his ability to lead.
The Johnson downfall is its own political tragedy, flaws of character exposed by exceptional demands—although Johnson’s critics argued that even aside from the pandemic, his rhetoric never compensated for his lack of the basic disciplines of running a government. But Johnson’s rise was an illustration of the underlying political difficulty facing all parties in the United Kingdom: that it is becoming ever harder for a single big political party to span all the country’s deep social divisions. Johnson managed it through force of personality, a relentless boosterism, and a fluid set of political principles that created a coalition among enough voters to give his party a majority. But even before the pandemic, the party’s inconsistencies were becoming exposed. It was hard, for example, for the Conservatives to court both the poorer northeast, which voted heavily for Brexit, and their traditional bedrock of support in the affluent southeast, which did not.
Johnson succeeded in the December 2019 election where Theresa May, who led the party from 2016 to 2019, failed. She struggled to get a majority even within her own Cabinet, let alone among her MPs, for her preferred version of Brexit, which leaned toward a clear break from the single market garnished with detailed compromises. It satisfied neither the purist Brexit tribe nor those who feared the economic hit of leaving.
But the problem of how to lead a complex country that is dominated by London and contains people with widely differing views and an increasingly strong desire for regional identity is bigger than May, Johnson, or Truss. That has given new fuel to that perpetual suggestion always hovering at the edge of British politics—whether it is time to scrap the “first past the post” electoral system in favor of a version of proportional representation. Its advocates say that would enable the Conservatives to isolate the hard-Brexit voters in a different party and avoid the Conservatives being tugged continually to the right to accommodate them. Its critics say it would make little difference to the stability of parties or governments because it would generate coalitions where these voices still played a decisive part. It is possible, though, that a change of the voting system would be better at representing the complexity of modern Britain and give more voters, at a time of skepticism about the value of government, a sense that their vote counted.
Labour has its own version of these problems in appealing to voters that span the United Kingdom’s many regions and ethnicities. Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has spent much of his time battling hard-left elements within his party. But having struggled for years to open up a single-digit lead in the polls, the Labour party is now enjoying an undreamed of edge over the Conservatives and the possibility of an outright majority. No calls for proportional representation will come from there at this moment.
Sunak now steps into this mess. As he does, it is important to recognize that some of the country’s institutions have been made stronger by the Truss turmoil. Parliament has done its job in holding a leader to account and enforcing the principle that governments must explain where they will get the money they plan to spend. Truss’s failure to do that was the reason the markets, and members of Parliament, rebelled at her budget. It will be a long time before a prime minister tries, as Truss did, to avoid the comments of the Office for Budget Responsibility, the independent watchdog of the national finances, and push through an irresponsible, but politically attractive, spending and tax plan.
The Bank of England has retained its independence and the goal of tackling inflation in the face of Truss’s apparent desire to give it a second objective of targeting growth, which could have made defeating inflation even harder. It is important that the bank continues to do that because of the threat that inflation, once embedded, poses to people’s everyday lives as well as the governability of the country. Fear of inflation is already pushing up wage demands and triggering strikes. Yet there are also calls for the bank to justify its actions more clearly; there is more public awareness in times of high interest rates that the decisions of its unelected technocrats have a huge impact on people’s lives. Sunak needs to be sensitive to that in explaining both the importance of the bank’s independence and of the need to beat inflation quickly.
Any wider plan by Sunak for restoring confidence starts at home, with a credible account of both taxes and public spending. All the choices are tough, as Hunt has already warned. Like many democracies with aging populations, the United Kingdom does not have the money for the public services that people want. On top of that, however, the country faces rising costs from the National Health Service, where waiting times for treatment are at record highs.
Sunak will also need a plan for curbing energy costs, which are a source of fear and hardship for many people. Hunt has pledged to extend the cap on energy bills that Truss introduced in September. He has said that he will look for ways to shield the poorest people from high energy costs, which would be a sensible modification of the policy. At the moment, the benefit goes to every household regardless of income or wealth. Beyond that, Sunak will have to fashion a coherent energy policy out of the motley assembly of initiatives that his predecessors have assembled. New nuclear stations are years behind desired plans in their construction; he needs to decide whether to commission more—and how to pay for them, given the new concern about taking funding from Chinese companies. Fracking for natural gas is hugely contentious within Parliament, both because of local fears and because it offends the United Kingdom’s climate change commitments; Sunak must decide whether the need for cheaper supplies independent of Russian gas outweighs this controversy, and if so, see if he can build the support in Parliament. To show a commitment to the United Kingdom’s climate change targets, he might consider reversing Truss’s reported direction to King Charles III not to attend the UN Climate conference known as COP 27 in Egypt in November.
Truss’s exit had seemed inevitable almost from the moment she took office.
Although credibility of government at home needs to be the basis for repairing the United Kingdom’s reputation abroad, Sunak will also have to refashion some of its key relationships. On this, the road leads first to Europe, given how close the trading and cultural ties still are. The priority is to come to a resolution on Northern Ireland in which both sides say they are close to a series of compromises that will let most goods traded between Northern Ireland and the mainland flow without onerous checks. That is also the bare minimum for improving relations with the United States, where the Biden administration has made clear that it wants an end to strains that could jeopardize peace in the province. Talks with the EU on whether there are measures to improve the passage of people, goods, services, and capital with the United Kingdom—the EU’s “four freedoms”—might become more feasible if the question of Northern Ireland is resolved. But these issues will remain difficult for years; the EU is alert and unsympathetic to British attempts to secure some of the benefits of being part of the single market without accepting its constraints.
Immigration—including of students and of workers with visas—remains hugely contentious in both the Conservative and Labour Parties. Sunak’s victory was greeted with huge delight in India, including from Prime Minister Narendra Modi who offered his wishes to “the ‘living bridge’ of UK Indians.” But Sunak may test that affection with his reappointment of Suella Braverman as home secretary. She provoked fury when in that post under Truss by singling out Indian migrants for overstaying their visas.
The United Kingdom’s vigorous support for Ukraine may offer Sunak the most solid basis on which to rebuild an international reputation. Johnson, who loved appearing with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on camera, staked out this position, sending weapons and aid from the start of the war. That support has reinforced London’s standing with its allies. It has also reasserted the United Kingdom’s commitment to the defense of freedom and the protection of sovereignty and the rule of law. Those are the country’s core values and the basis of its standing in the world. The country will be in an even better position to argue for them if its prime minister proves capable of lasting a full term in office.
The Next Prime Minister Will Struggle to Repair the Country’s Standing