The English phrase “it never rains but it pours” is a compelling description of UK politics in 2022, after Prime Minister Liz Truss’s resignation on Thursday made her the shortest-lived occupant of 10 Downing Street.
It is certainly the feeling of many, if not most, exasperated Conservative MPs in Westminster, who now yet face another leadership contest.
The remarkable developments in London follow one of the most remarkable weeks in UK political history. A growing number of Conservative MPs reached the conclusion that Truss needed to be replaced. Her fate was sealed by last month’s disastrous mini-budget, which proposed turning on the fiscal taps through massive tax cuts and public spending that spooked financial markets. Last week, she sacked her finance minister Kwasi Kwarteng, but the turmoil surrounding her leadership only deepened, with many recognizing he was a scapegoat for Truss herself.
Kwarteng was no “rogue” colleague, but one who had a joint agenda with Truss. Indeed, it was she who pushed Kwarteng to be bolder than he wanted to be in last month’s reckless emergency budget.
In general, it is clear too that the blame must lie at Truss’s door for creating a narrative around the new government’s economic policy that was unwise and unsustainable, especially in the midst of a looming downturn. During the leadership election contest over the summer, she artificially inflated expectations that she would end what she called a failed UK consensus that had “peddled a particular type of economic policy for 20 years that hasn’t delivered.” It was also naive to launch last month’s emergency budget without economic forecasts from the independent Office for Budget Responsibility.
As if this domestic political humiliation were not enough for Truss, US President Joe Biden weighed in last weekend to call her abandoned budget plan a “mistake,” and said it was “predictable” when she was forced last week to walk back her plans.
So, less than two months after assuming office, and after the worst start of any modern British prime minister, Truss is packing her bags. Those who could succeed her in the contest include former prime minister Boris Johnson, former finance minister Rishi Sunak, Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, and former Home Secretary Suella Braverman.
With the general public and the financial markets now awaiting the outcome of next week’s leadership election, it is timely to reflect on the extraordinary events in the UK. At the heart of this was the most negative market reaction to any UK fiscal event in living memory, with Kwarteng’s resignation last week meaning there have now been four UK finance ministers in four months — Sunak, Nadhim Zahawi, Kwarteng and Jeremy Hunt.
As the fate of Truss exemplifies, the political longevity of prime ministers since 2019 has decreased too, with three since then (Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Truss) and a fourth now to come. Compare this withbefore, when David Cameron served six years, Gordon Brown three, Tony Blair 10, John Major six, and Margaret Thatcher 11.
However, remarkable as the past few weeks have been, they fit a wider pattern of underlying UK political flux since at least the Brexit referendum in 2016. This is no better documented than in the British Election Study,which indicates how much voters are increasingly influenced by key “shocks”, such as the coronavirus pandemic, that have seen traditional partisan voting patterns eroding faster than ever, adding to volatility —including the 2017 and 2019 elections, in which more people changed their vote than ever before in the post-war era.
The chief beneficiary of Truss’s travails will be the Labour Party, which is calling for a general election. Some recent polls have given the party leads of over 30 percentage points, the highest since Tony Blair’s landslide election victory in 1997.
Remarkable as the past few weeks have been, they fit a wider pattern of underlying UK political flux since at least the Brexit referendum.
The calls for a general election have particular potency as there will now have been two changes of prime minister since the last election. The last time the UK was in this territory was nearly a century ago, when Stanley Baldwin won the 1935 election and handed power to Neville Chamberlain, who ceded power to Winston Churchill in 1940 during the Second World War. But the circumstances of 2022 are different from those of wartime Britain in 1940.
Labour takes nothing for granted, given the volatile political mood and the forthcoming election of a new prime minister. However, there is a growing sense in the country that the Conservatives may now be reaching the “end game” of their current period of office, and will fail to emerge as the largest party at the next election for the first time since 2005.
- Andrew Hammond