UK’s choice of a new leader — and why it matters

UK’s choice of a new leader — and why it matters

UK’s choice of a new leader — and why it matters
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The rest of the world might be forgiven for paying little attention to yet another change of Conservative prime minister in the UK. It is hardly rare — this will be the third such event since 2016 to be handled internally by the party in power rather than by the electorate.
But it still matters. The UK sits on key international forums in a world that is never still and waits for no new leadership with any patience. Our constitution gives great power to a prime minister, but crucially only with the backing of Cabinet and Parliament, as Boris Johnson has just learned. The personality and convictions of the premier effectively drive, or hamper, the machinery of the UK, so who that person is matters.
We are now two weeks into the contest between the last two standing for the role — former Chancellor Rishi Sunak and current Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. Polling suggests Truss leads the 160,000-membership electorate, but with wildly different figures. Two polls at the time of writing vary, with one suggesting a 34-point lead and the other a margin of just five points. Meanwhile, a more selective poll of elected Conservative officials a few days ago suggested only a single-point difference.
But what the last two weeks have suggested is a consistent lead for the foreign secretary, and as ballot papers are now landing with the membership, who leads at present is significant since members tend to vote early. The contest is a minority sport — less than 1 percent of the UK population will choose the country’s next leader. This electorate has also moved politically to the right in recent years. The winner of the contest will unashamedly have to address them and leave their pitch to the wider population of a general election till later.
So far, the smart campaign, singing the key notes being listened to by the electorate, has been with Truss. Brexit remains central. For one who fought to remain in the EU in 2016, she has neatly, with the zeal of a convert, stolen the mantle of chief Brexiteer from Sunak, who actually campaigned for the UK to leave.
Truss’ robust advocacy of this cause, and her good fortune in being the minister responsible for signing new post-Brexit trade deals internationally, was noticed by her backers in Parliament, who now include the most prominent supporters of Brexit. An ability to adopt a new position with vigor, and be convincing, is not a trait to be underestimated in politics.

It is not over till it is over, but UK commentators suggest foreign capitals should more likely be reviewing Liz Truss’ CV and political commentaries than those of Rishi Sunak.

Alistair Burt

Sunak, the competent and serious-minded former chancellor, appears damned by the qualities that gave him the majority of MPs’ votes. He is branded as the continuity candidate of an establishment that many members appear to associate not with Johnson, but with some dead Civil Service or Treasury hand preventing the country fulfilling its potential.
And this may be key, for the untold story of the unseating of Johnson is that the UK leader was toppled not by a parliamentary coup or his own misjudgments, but was steadily weakened by consistent attacks from powerful former backers that his government had become “unConservative.”
The need for state intervention to combat the pandemic, and for taxation to rise, was taken as an indication that the “small state,” low-tax, free market ideal beloved of right-wing think tanks, party donors and the media was not coming to pass. Attacks on what was perceived as weakness toward the EU, and a failure to realize the opportunities of Brexit steadily weakened Johnson’s base. Those competing for the premiership will need little reminding of the importance of such support — a changed economy and national outlook may well be the result of such capture.
There has been little discussion of foreign affairs, which has not been much of a divisive issue in the UK recently, owing to a unanimity of approach on Ukraine. However, each candidate is trying to suggest that they are more alert to the threats from Russia and, particularly, China. Whoever wins is likely to take a more robust line on the latter, from higher education to technology transfer.
There has been even less mention of climate change, despite record UK temperatures recently. Whatever focus there has been is directed at the economic costs of “net zero” to a public about to face further crippling energy price increases from October. Protecting the public from this, rather than future generations from catastrophe, has the popular mood at present. A general election in due course might see a different approach.
Such leadership contests are never easy to call, and mistakes will continue to be made by both candidates. It is not over till it is over, but UK commentators suggest foreign capitals should more likely be reviewing Truss’ CV and political commentaries than those of Rishi Sunak.

  • Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK
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