At long last, Boris Johnson will vacate the UK prime ministership, and with it, leadership of the Tory party. But who will take his place?
Going, going……almost gone. The feckless, reckless Boris Johnson still has the keys to Number 10 Downing Street, but only for a few dangerous weeks while the Conservative party select a successor for the most dishonest and disingenuous prime minister in living memory.
Even after being asked to resign by senior Cabinet colleagues and more than 55 ministers in his own government, Boris Johnson’s belated resignation statement outside Downing Street was grudging, self-congratulatory, and bitter. He criticised the poor judgement of “the herd” that had ousted him, who had disregarded the will of the people who elected him. That, of course, is another Boris lie, because Britons vote for MPs, and the party with the most MPs select the leader.
But we should not waste more words on Johnson, who was given the epithet of “Britain’s Trump” by the odious former president of the United States, with whom he shared many unwelcome traits. It is unlikely that Johnson will return to either The Times or the London Daily Telegraph, from where he was sacked for making up quotes, but he can expect a six-figure advance for his memoir, will be lined up for the lucrative American lecture circuit, and will be sure to get a rewarding commission to cover the U.S. mid-terms. We have not heard the last of Boris.
The two big issues arising from Johnson’s impending departure are the future of the damaged Conservative party, which has held government for 48 of the 77 years since World War II, and the so-far ugly spectacle of the first stage of the contest for the leadership taking place in the next two weeks.
Unfortunately, the train wreck that is the British government will not be immediately put back on the track by the departure of Mr Johnson on 5 September. On that day, as Parliament resumes, the result of a drawn-out ballot of members of the Tory party will be announced in the Commons. Unfortunately, under a process agreed by a committee of Tory MPs, the paid-up members of the Conservative & Unionist Party will have a very limited choice. They will choose one of the two MPs pre-selected by their Commons colleagues in a series of semi-secret knock-out ballots.
Sadly, the final selection is secretive and undemocratic. There are fewer than 200,000 paid-up members of the Conservative party, which does not reveal the exact number or their demographic. We know the bulk are older people, there are more men than women and there are many more in the south than in the north of Britain. It’s interesting that only one of the six who survived the first round of balloting was a white male, but Tom Tugendhat will not make it to the last two.
It is almost inevitable that the final choice will include stalwarts of the Johnson government who consistently supported actions they knew to be illegal, unworkable, or unadvisable. While many conservative politicians, journalists, and columnists have argued that the party needs a “clean break” with the past, the final choice could well include at least one candidate, Liz Truss, who has continued strongly to support Johnson, and is still serving in his “caretaker” cabinet as foreign secretary.
Of the dozen or so serious contenders who put themselves forward for pre-selection, only three could be said to have “clean hands.” By far the most qualified was Jeremy Hunt, 55, who has previous experience as foreign secretary and health secretary but lost out to Johnson in the last ballot to select a Tory leader. Although he is the only significant candidate not to have served in the Johnson government, Hunt did not get enough support to go beyond the first ballot.
Penny Mordaunt, a junior trade minister from the right wing of the party who aspires to be another Thatcher, would be the best of the women candidates and is popular with young Tories. She has a hi-tech, aggressive campaign team and could well beat the bookies’ favourite – Liz Truss ‒ to the final two. Truss is better known, a battler, and a practised self-publicist adept at changing her views to suit the audience.
All but one of the contenders for prime minister have in recent days promised to deliver huge tax cuts to the British people if elected. Collectively, most candidates have been living in cloud cuckoo land, promising cuts in income tax, value-added tax, fuel duty, and corporation tax adding up to around £300 billion. Characteristically, Truss overpromised but, like the others, offered not the slightest detail on how this largesse would be funded.
What programs would be cut? Which of Johnson’s election promises would be broken? What about the pledge to increase defence spending to two percent of GDP? Or will the new leader, faced with inflation of ten percent and rising, be forced to add to the UK’s surging debt, borrowing at rising interest rates, or printing more money? None of these questions have been answered.
The one exception was the only credible candidate for high office – Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), whose resignation ten days ago, just ten minutes after health secretary Savid Javid, precipitated the collapse of support for Johnson. Sunak and his Treasury team had repeated clashes with Johnson on economic policy, with the main points of difference being the Prime Minister’s promises and his lack of interest in fiscal discipline. In his resignation letter Sunak said that if the public know “something is too good to be true, they know it is not true”. He cautioned against “fairy tale solutions.”
Sunak said the tax increases he had introduced were necessary, and that cuts would have to wait until inflation was under control. You would have to hope that Sunak makes it to the last two, though whether Tory members have the good sense to vote for the economically literate candidate is an open question, with Boris Johnson and his caretaker Cabinet allies Jacob Rees-Mogg and Priti Patel busy plotting against him.
Whoever gets the nod on 5 September will have to deal with the legacy of Boris Johnson — in particular, the damage caused by Brexit, the flawed policy that brought him to power. Remember Johnson’s big red campaign bus emblazoned with falsehoods? Among them was the message that when Britain left the European Union £360 million a week would flow back from Brussels to boost the National Health Service. Another was that Brussels was set to admit Turkey to EU membership, and a vote to remain would lead to millions of Turks moving to the UK, taking Britons’ jobs. Both claims were lies, but they served their purpose, and the Brexiteers won the referendum.
Since leaving the EU, the British economy has slumped. Once the fastest growing nation in the G7, it is now the slowest. Productivity and business investment have fallen and the recent quarterly trade figures were the worst for decades. Exports, particularly to the important European market, are down, and imports are up. Relations with the EU are at a nadir due to Johnson’s attempt to scrap important clauses of the Brexit agreement affecting the Northern Ireland-EU relationship. This was a treaty that Johnson himself negotiated to get Brexit done, a move that has angered Washington and Brussels in equal measure.
But there is no going back on Brexit. All those seeking the Tory leadership are committed to it, though two or three of the candidates would welcome a better relationship with Europe. The Opposition Labour Party has been devoid of new ideas and has ruled out seeking to re-join either the lucrative EU Single Market, that served Britain so well, or the Customs Union in goods.
Sunak decisively won the first and second rounds of the MP’s knock-out contest, with 88 votes and 101 votes respectively. He is the ‘grown up’ candidate, a man of integrity who knows what he is doing and will not be lured into false promises. Mordaunt is now firmly in second place with 83 votes at the last count, despite a very public rubbishing on the popular BBC Today program from Lord Frost who was her boss when he was Johnson’s Brexit minister. Sunak would be the right choice as prime minister, but the unpredictable Tory members may find the instant gratification of tax cuts too hard to resist. There is still a month of TV debates ahead, and it’s too soon to rule out Britain having its third woman prime minister.
Colin Chapman is editor-at-large of Australian Outlook and a fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He was president of AIIA New South Wales. Colin is a writer, broadcaster, and public speaker who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He has held executive positions at the BBC and Financial Times.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.