If Boris Johnson leaves office, it increases the chance that UK will see another early general election. His time as Prime Minister does seem to be coming to an end and speculation is already running rife about who would be most likely to succeed him.
The form book makes Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss the front runners and in their different ways, they are on manoeuvres. While Truss is busy with photoshoots suggesting she’s keen to compare herself with Margaret Thatcher – a somewhat bold claim – Sunak is keeping a lower profile. Both seem to be trying to keep well away from the controversies engulfing Johnson.
But dig a little deeper and you find other sorts of form on both, which suggests that were either to replace Johnson, Britain would be in bigger trouble than it is now unless Parliament is dissolved and there’s a general election. Let’s start excavating.
Sunak – good with people’s money?
Rishi Sunak has only been in Parliament a few years, rising rapidly – perhaps too rapidly – to his current role as Chancellor. Many think he handled the Covid emergency well and yes, the furlough scheme did much to save jobs and keep business viable. He’s young, articulate and personable, in comparison with Johnson’s shambling dishonesty.
Extraordinarily wealthy, his career is typically 21st century Tory: private school, degrees from Oxford and Stanford Universities, careers as a merchant banker and in international business in the USA. He claims this helps him understandhow best to “support free enterprise and innovation to ensure our future prosperity.”
But he was quite happy to end the £20 Universal Credit uplift which plunged many back into hardship, abandon the Triple Lock for pensioners and hike National Insurance rates from April primarily to pay for the NHS rather than social care.
He launched Eat Out to Help Out, which arguably triggered the second Covid wave, has just written off £4.3bn of fraudulent claims for Covid business relief and as Chancellor, would have played a significant part in authorising £37bn for Test and Trace, a service that was a failure.
Is this a man with an economic strategy and the interests of the ordinary person at heart? There are doubts. Fiscally prudent? A good pandemic? Maybe not so much.
Truss – ‘nothing short of demented’?
Liz Truss is popular with some grassroots Tories, though her record is very thin. Originally a Liberal Democrat, she switched to the Conservatives in the late 1990s. She also campaigned fervently to Remain in the EU prior to the referendum in 2016, before becoming a strident advocate for Brexit after the result. This suggests someone with no consistency of view, to say the least.
First elected to Parliament in 2010, she’s currently Foreign Secretary. Recently she’s been making threats about the UK’s response to any Russian incursion into Ukraine and warning that this could spark similarly aggressive moves by China in the Pacific; views that got very short shrift from former Australian prime minister Paul Keating who described them as “nothing short of demented.” He linked this to Truss’s desperation to signal Britain’s new ‘strategic partnership’ with Australia, which he dismisses as not adding up to “a row of beans”.
Remember as Trade Secretary, she signed a new trade deal with Australia which analysis suggests gives them everything they wanted in return for minimal gains for the UK. She also boasted about a number of other deals she’s concluded, which turned out to be cut-and-paste jobs from the deals we had while members of the EU.
Whatever else Liz Truss is, you can’t fault her as a story-teller.
More from Central Bylines
The Tufton Street connection
For those unaware, Tufton Street is the home of various groups of “pro-leave, economically libertarian pressure groups” who want the UK “to abandon or roll back environmental regulations post-Brexit. Many of the groups have close links to funders of climate science denial, with some organisations taking donations from the fossil fuel industry.”
It’s possible to see these views as substantial threats to the UK at home and to its international reputation as we have known it.
Freeports or a Trojan Horse?
No threat is greater than the new freeports, which generated predictably excited headlines when they were announced in the budget. Freeports in the UK are not new. They are zones where different customs and tax rules can be set, giving businesses established in them some competitive advantages (the theory goes). There were up to 12 when we were an EU member state but the legislation that governed them was not renewed in 2012 because they were considered havens for fraud, tax evasion and money laundering.
They are back in fashion because of Tufton Street libertarianism. The UK wanted to leave the EU to be able to set its own rules, but freeports will not benefit the economy, they are simply a Trojan horse for changing the UK’s economic model to a low tax, low welfare one. There are concerns they are the first step towards Enterprise or Charter cities, effectively independent mini-states where there are not just different customs and tax rules, but also minimal regulations – for example covering rates of pay, health and safety, employment, and the quality of goods and raw materials.
The consequences of this development would be significant. Any business located there would be able to undercut the costs of similar businesses outside. The laws of economic gravity will then start to apply.
Firms inside the zone with lower costs will be able to sell their goods, which may be of poorer quality and even unsafe, more cheaply. Similar firms outside will not be able to compete and will disappear, turning the areas nearby into economic deserts. And you can be fairly sure that fraud, tax evasion, and money laundering will return, along with cheap labour, poorer environmental standards, and weakened employment and social rights.
Do not forget, Sunak and Truss are Johnson’s creations. Like the rest of his Cabinet, they are tarred with his brush, and wherever you look there are no good alternatives.
Dominic Raab? The Deputy Prime Minister couldn’t be arsed to get off the beach during the Afghan crisis and is keen on ripping up the Human Rights Act. Priti Patel? She seems too busy looking to break international law and drown refugees. Michael Gove? He’s currently trying to cobble something together for the Levelling Up brief, and whatever he puts forward will inevitably be judged inadequate and quite possibly be as unpopular as the Poll Tax.
All three are electorally toxic.
Jeremy Hunt? Sajid Javid? As former and current Health Secretaries, their plans to sell off the NHS deserve to be hung round their necks till they stink. Nadhim Zahawi tries too hard to look earnest and comes over as insincere. Nobody’s heard of outsiders such as Penny Morduant and Tom Tugendhat. As for Nadine Dorries…
These choices are no choice. For too long, the UK has been at the mercy of this ‘natural party of government’ and the last thing it needs is another Prime Minister without integrity or gravitas – let alone either Truss or Sunak – imposed upon it mid-parliament by the whim of the Conservative party membership and without the consent of the people.
If Johnson goes, it doesn’t necessarily follow that parliament will be dissolved and a general election called – whatever Jacob Rees-Mogg might say – but it does make it more likely.