UK: new prime minister, same old problems?
Liz Truss is the UK’s next prime minister, having triumphed in the Conservative Party’s two-month-long leadership contest. The race to appeal to the party’s members – highly unrepresentative of the British population – saw candidates prioritise divisive culture war issues, stoke hatred towards asylum seekers and trans people and backpedal on climate commitments. Truss promises to continue the right-wing populist approach of her predecessor, Boris Johnson, which led to a troubling decline in civic freedoms and the rule of law. But she will urgently need to address the UK’s cost-of-living crisis that sees millions facing a winter of misery, or she won’t be in the job for long.
Almost two months after Boris Johnson announced he was stepping down, the UK finally has a new prime minister. Liz Truss has triumphed in the Conservative Party’s leadership contest to become the country’s third female head of government. She faces some big immediate challenges – but the tone of her campaign doesn’t bode well for the future.
The end of a long campaign
Johnson took the helm in July 2019, ushering in a colourful and chaotic three years. He delivered a huge election win for his party in November 2019 by pledging to ‘get Brexit done’. But his popularity collapsed following numerous allegations that he broke the government’s COVID-19 rules, for which he received a police fine. Johnson weathered multiple scandals, surviving a confidence vote held by Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) in June.
But the following month he was brought down by yet another scandal, with allegations of sexual misconduct involving one of his government appointments, Chris Pincher. Johnson initially denied any prior knowledge of Pincher’s sexual misconduct allegations, but this was quickly exposed as a lie. For ministers who’d been sent out to defend Johnson in the media, this proved the final straw. It triggered a mass wave of ministerial resignations, leaving Johnson with no choice but to step down.
Johnson resigned as Conservative Party leader but stayed on as prime minister while his party held a leadership contest. This came in two phases. In the first round, Conservative MPs held multiple rounds of voting to whittle a field of eight candidates down to a shortlist of two.
On 20 July the final race was confirmed: foreign minister Truss, who’d stayed loyal to Johnson, went head to head with former finance minister Rishi Sunak, who’d been one of the first to resign.
The two went on the campaign trail, heading around country for a series of public meetings to try to win over Conservative Party members. On 5 September, Truss was announced the winner, with 57.4 per cent of the vote compared to Sunak’s 42.6 per cent.
A toxic campaign
To become the next prime minister there was no need for Truss to win public support. Because of the Conservative Party’s large parliamentary lead, whoever won the leadership election would become prime minister. All she needed to do was to convince a majority of Conservative Party members.
The party doesn’t publish membership figures, but 172,437 people were eligible to vote, a tiny fraction of the UK’s 67 million-plus population. Conservative Party members aren’t particularly representative of the population either: around half are aged over 60, 97 per cent are white and they skew male and disproportionately live in the south of England, the UK’s most prosperous region. It’s fair to assume this small group are to the right of the population as a whole.
Both candidates sought to appeal to this select constituency by emphasising their right-wing credentials. This meant much of the debate was dominated by toxic culture war politics as each candidate attempted to present themselves as the strongest ‘anti-woke’ crusader.
In practice this entailed much airing of transphobia, with attempts to establish firm lines on issues such as the biological definitions of a woman and bathroom use. At the launch of the campaign of right-winger Kemi Badenoch, who came fourth in MP’s votes, handmade signs were taped to the doors of gender-neutral toilet cubicles to signal a hard line on trans rights.
When Sunak’s campaign was struggling, he promised to end ‘woke nonsense’, including by reviewing the Equalities Act and sex education in schools. Truss has hinted at reversing her former opposition to so-called ‘conversion therapies’ – discredited practices that falsely claim to change sexual orientation or gender identity, considered akin to torture by human rights groups.
Little wonder that LGBTQI+ Conservative Party members accused candidates of instrumentalising LGBTQI+ issues in their quest for votes, with some questioning whether they could remain in the party. Experience in countries from Ghana to Hungary shows these attacks in political rhetoric have real-world repercussions by normalising discrimination and violence.
The UK government tried to make political capital out of hosting the COP26 climate summit in 2021, but multiple leadership candidates received donations from climate deniers – one candidate, Suella Braverman, another right-winger, was handed approx. US$115,000 by a company run by one such figure. Sunak, a former hedge fund manager who with his wife appears on a list of the UK’s richest people, has family investments in a company linked to fossil fuel giant Shell.
The last four in the race gave only qualified support to the UK’s net zero commitment. Even as the UK experienced a record heatwave, both Sunak and Truss criticised windfarms and solar power, and expressed their support for resuming fracking and extracting more North Sea oil and gas.
Migrants and refugees were another predictable target. Both Sunak and Truss not only expressed their support for the UK’s inhumane new plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda – they committed to extending it.
It might be tempting to think that Sunak and Truss were merely saying what their party needed to hear, and planned to take a more moderate direction after the vote. Both have shown themselves to be politically flexible when needed. Truss went from opposing Brexit to positioning herself as one of its most ardent supporters. Both are incredibly image conscious, adept social media users seemingly seldom far from their official photographers.
But even if Truss wanted to row back from campaign positions, that might be difficult. Under Johnson, the parliamentary Conservative Party shifted significantly rightwards. In September 2019, 21 more moderate MPs, many of them heavy hitters, were expelled from the party over their stance on Brexit. They lost their seats at the following election.
Many of those elected in 2019, typically in seats the party had never won before, are on the right of the party. So while previous Conservative governments have often taken a ‘broad church’ approach, reflecting a range of views across the party, Johnson’s government has been more narrow, and has often taken a populist tack.
There seems little hope the Truss government, promising a more efficient version of the Johnson era, will break with the UK’s populist trajectory.
There’s little sign that will change under Truss, who has positioned herself as the continuity candidate. Many of the MPs who threw their weight behind her are on the right, including many who initially supported right-wing favourites Badenoch and Braverman. Those two likely ran not to win but to build profile with the aim of gaining a ministerial promotion. Truss’s rumoured cabinet sees right-wingers in prominent roles, particularly in the economic sphere, where she takes a strongly free-market, small-government, low-regulation position.
Economic storm on the horizon
The new administration has huge issues to address. The priority placed on issues such as trans rights and asylum policies during the campaign far exceed the importance they have for the broader public. Right now, what most people are preoccupied by is the potentially catastrophic rise in the cost of living.
In July inflation rose above 10 per cent, its highest in four decades. It could go as high as 22 per cent in 2023. Huge fuel price rises are its key driver. Recently it was announced that from October the average home energy bill will increase to approx. US$4,100 a year, almost treble its October 2021 level. In January 2023, a further rise could push this even higher, perhaps to US$6,220 a year. UK households have been the hardest-hit in western Europe by high energy prices.
As the northern hemisphere winter approaches, two-thirds of households could be thrown into fuel poverty – including people normally considered affluent. Meanwhile energy companies are making record profits: a mass transfer of resources from struggling people to massive corporations is underway.
Government action has been delayed for months pending the party contest, with an absentee prime minister enjoying two foreign holidays since stepping down as party leader and ministers busy with campaign politics.
People may well think their leaders aren’t taking the crisis seriously: in early September, Johnson used one of his last speeches as prime minister to suggest that if people bought a new kettle they could save around US$12 a year.
Millions will be watching to see how Truss, often accused of having more style than substance, deals with this immense challenge. Truss has suggested she will respond with tax cuts – which may do little to help those already worst off – and has seized on the opportunity to promise to halt the ‘green levy’, which makes up a small part of energy bills, as well as extract more oil and gas, even though this have make no impact on prices set by global markets.
The rising cost of living is seeing a resurgence of labour organising, with strikes held in key industries including railways and the postal service. Trade unions and community groups have launched a campaign, Enough is Enough, to articulate demands for improved pay, energy bill cuts, an end to poverty, decent housing and progressive taxation. But the government, looking for ways to shore up its collapsing poll ratings, may see the surge of labour organising as an opportunity for a political confrontation rather than yet another warning of the immense challenge it needs to address.
Populism and the rule of law
The manner of governing is as important as the substance of the decisions made by government, and here too the signs are troubling: this year Johnson’s government limited people’s ability to express dissent by giving the police draconian new anti-protest powers under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act.
In April the government also passed a law to introduce voter ID, which will likely penalise poorer people less inclined to vote Conservative, and take control of the body that oversees elections. It also pledged to limit the ability of people to subject government decisions to judicial review and water down the Human Rights Act.
Campaign talk of withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights – including by Truss – went down well with the party hardcore, even though that would place the UK alongside Russia as the only country to have done so.
There seems little hope the Truss government, promising a more efficient version of the Johnson era, will break with the UK’s populist trajectory. Truss was accused of dodging media scrutiny on the campaign trail and has refused to commit to appointing an ethics adviser – a figure who can act as a check on bad decisions, to the extent that two resigned under Johnson.
Ultimately, Truss herself may not last long in the job, unless the party’s disastrous poll ratings pick up, an unlikely scenario if the cost-of-living crisis isn’t averted. Conservative MPs are notoriously disloyal, ever prepared to switch leaders if they think they will fare better at the next election. Johnson, who has never shown a shred of acknowledgement of his own culpability in his downfall, is still evidently adored by many grassroots party members and may be plotting a comeback.
But the millions facing destitution this winter don’t have time to indulge in the luxury of further political circus. They need action on the energy bill crisis – and they need it fast.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Truss administration should move urgently to protect people from high energy costs.
The government should abide by the UK’s net zero commitment and COP26 promises, develop renewable energies and commit to no reintroduction of fracking.
The government should abide by the rule of law, review policing powers and cease its attacks on human rights legislation.
Cover photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty Images