New UK prime minister faces troubled times
As the ballots go out to members of the Conservative Party in the UK to select their next leader, and the nation’s prime minister, storm clouds are gathering for the winner.
Since the Conservatives were elected to government in 2010, they have had three leaders: David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson. It looks likely that from the first week of September, when the result of the ballot is announced, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will become the fourth person to assume power as prime minister.
To be sure, Truss’s opponent, former Finance Minister Rishi Sunak, could yet pull off a surprise victory. The odds are heavily against this, however, even though polls show he is more popular with swing voters than Truss.
First, his record in government as a tax-raising chancellor is not welcomed by many members of his party. Second, Johnson remains a popular figure among many Conservatives, a significant number of whom are angry with Sunak for resigning from the government in a high-profile fashion that led to Johnson being forced out of office.
Third, even though Truss has been a minister longer than Sunak, and in public remained loyal to Johnson until he resigned, she has been more successful at depicting herself as a “change candidate.” She has achieved this in part through championing a series of policies such as tax cuts which, while welcomed by Conservative members, might prove to be counterproductive given the current high rate of inflation.
One of the most noteworthy features of this leadership contest, which takes place during the war in Ukraine and cost-of-living crises, is how much the controversial legacy of former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher is being discussed. Indeed, she has been a bigger talking point during this contest than in any other since her departure from Downing Street in 1990.
This reflects, in part, the political drift of the Conservatives to the right in recent years, plus the elimination from the parliamentary party of a generation of centrist, “Remainer” MPs in 2019.
Another reason for the focus on Thatcher now is that the party is divided over what it wants in a new leader and its future direction. It is therefore looking to recreate the Thatcher era, during which she won three general elections.
Truss and Sunak are trying to define their candidacies around differing elements of what they perceive to be Thatcher’s legacy.
Whoever wins, the new prime minister will face a range of foreign and domestic challenges. Moreover, the opposition Labour Party is currently enjoying its best, most sustained poll ratings for more than a decade — with a general election on the horizon in 2023 or 2024.
The internal management of the Conservatives will be tricky, too. This is because although the party still has a significant working majority in the House of Commons from the 2019 election, it was won by Johnson and not the new prime minister. Therefore Conservative MPs might be significantly more rebellious now than under Johnson’s leadership.
Another reason why it might not be easy to reunite the party is that this Conservative leadership contest has been the most divisive ever. Several ministers have warned both candidates to tone down their attacks on each other.
One of the key, early signals of how the new prime minister will handle party management will come with the announcement of the new Cabinet. A key criticism of Johnson was that he selected his senior team from a very narrow section of the party, leaving a lot of discontented MPs on the backbenches, especially those who voted Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Therefore the next prime minister may well choose to select Cabinet members from a broader base of MPs. Nonetheless, the political prospects for the Conservatives still appear gloomy, with some historic challenges to be faced in the immediate term.
• Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics