Britain’s new PM lands on very shaky ground
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/10/2022 (224 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Rishi Sunak, a wealthy ex-banker of South Asian parentage, yesterday became the lone survivor of the British Conservative Party’s search for a new leader to replace the disgraced Boris Johnson. He will therefore become the prime minister who must try to rescue the United Kingdom from the economic decline over which he and his party have presided.
The omens were unfavourable. As his appointment was announced, the purchasing managers index for U.K. business showed a fresh decline, indicating an accelerating contraction of the U.K. economy. The British public is clamouring for tax cuts to ease the pain of the country’s rapid consumer price inflation.
As chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), Mr. Sunak had already borrowed so heavily that bond markets will not readily finance cuts in government revenue or increased spending.
Mr. Sunak’s own position is precarious. Grassroots members of his party emphatically rejected his leadership bid in September, preferring the tax-cutting plan of Liz Truss. After she won the contest, then abandoned her plan and resigned, Mr. Sunak must now bring them the unwelcome news that public services will have to be curtailed and taxes will remain high.
The Conservative Party rules Britain at the moment because Boris Johnson won a landslide victory in December 2019 on a program of completing Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. Mr. Johnson was dumped from the party leadership because he and his colleagues had been partying enthusiastically in government offices while forbidding their subjects to attend social gatherings on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.
His place was taken by Liz Truss in September, and now by Mr. Sunak.
One Conservative faction wanted Mr. Johnson back as leader since he kept them in power two years ago. A clear majority of card-carrying Conservatives wanted Ms. Truss. Mr. Sunak must now create at least an appearance of unity among these competing factions.
Though he is an expert in financial markets, Mr. Sunak has no history of political manoeuvring or management of internecine conflict. He will be tested immediately by the need to keep his parliamentary party together while the country digests the bad news. The national economy is shrinking and the government has little room to ease the tax burden or improve public services.
The opposition parties are demanding an early election. Since the public never elected a Conservative majority with either Ms. Truss or Mr. Sunak as party leader, it will be hard for him to show he can legitimately carry on through the unexpired portion of Mr. Johnson’s mandate.
The roundabout way he became prime minister gives his followers little reason to expect that he will remain long in office. They will be bracing themselves for electoral defeat, urging him to delay the next election as long as possible and searching for the next leader who might start rebuilding their party from the present wreckage.
Many political parties, including the British Labour Party and Canada’s Conservatives, have run into difficulties when the party grassroots elected a leader who was not supported by the parliamentary caucus. Canada’s Erin O’Toole and Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn found support from party conferences but were never accepted by the lawmakers they were supposed to lead.
British Conservatives found a way to choose Mr. Sunak and make an end-run around consulting the non-elected Conservatives who do the hard campaign work of winning elections. Mr. Sunak will have to find a way to keep those party members in the game, even though they have been told their opinions are of no interest.