Britons will find out later Monday who will be their next prime minister as the country faces a looming economic and humanitarian crisis, almost two months after Boris Johnson quit in the wake of a series of scandals.
At approximately 12:30 p.m. local time (7:30 a.m. ET) the ruling Conservative Party will announce the results of its leadership election, in which the two contenders in the final round, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former finance minister Rishi Sunak, sharply criticized each other’s plans.
Truss, a low-tax evangelist and the poster-child for the British Conservative right, is the strong favorite to beat Sunak, the former chancellor of the exchequer, who voted for Brexit but has now taken a softer tone on how the UK should deal with the EU.
The winner of the contest will, as leader of the largest party in the House of Commons, take over as prime minister until the next general election, which must be held by December 2024.
Whoever triumphs will likely travel Tuesday to meet Queen Elizabeth II to receive an invitation to form a government. The reception is typically held at Buckingham Palace, but the 96-year-old monarch is at her Scottish residence in Balmoral and, for the first time in her reign, she will receive Johnson and his successor there.
But the next PM’s celebrations are likely to be brief, with a spiraling cost-of-living crisis – average annual energy bills alone are set to rise 80% to £3,549 (approximately $4,180) from October – threatening to overwhelm much of the country. On Sunday, speaking on a BBC political show, Truss refused to discuss her plans to tackle rising bills, but added, “what I want to reassure people is, I will act if elected as prime minister within one week.”
Truss is the clear frontrunner to win most votes among ordinary Conservative Party members in the leadership election. Despite voting to remain in the European Union back in 2016, Truss has found herself to be the preferred candidate of the vast majority of Brexiteers in her party.
Critics have accused her of playing politics with Brexit, adopting a hardline stance in a cynical attempt to win votes. They pointed to the fact that throughout her adult life, Truss’s politics have evolved from being in her youth an anti-monarchist in favor of legalizing drugs, to the embodiment of the right-wing of the Conservative Party. Truss’s campaign platform has featured plenty of red meat for the Conservative membership, from a hardline against the EU on Brexit, to tax cuts as her main solution to the cost-of-living crisis.
Unlike Truss, Sunak did vote to leave the EU in 2016 and has made repeated promises to get rid of EU regulation. He spent the early days of his campaign criticizing Truss’s plans for tax cuts, though he has to some extent followed her lead.
Sunak won plaudits early in the coronavirus pandemic for using government money to assist people who lost their jobs or couldn’t run their businesses. He was later hit with a fine for attending a party with Johnson during lockdown, and came under scrutiny over the tax arrangements of his wife, Akshata Murty, the daughter of an Indian billionaire.
Rough road ahead
Whatever the outcome, Sunak or Truss will take over a Conservative government facing multiple crises after 12 years in power. As well as the cost-of-living crisis, the next prime minister must address crumbling public services and a looming winter of strikes, all while making the case that the Conservatives deserve to win a historic fifth term at the next general election.
Inflation rose above 10% in July for the first time in 40 years, driven largely by the soaring cost of energy, food and fuel amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to the Bank of England, inflation will soar to 13% by the end of the year. The central bank also predicted that the UK will enter recession before the end of the year.
As far as this affects the leadership contest, analysts are skeptical that either candidate’s policies will help. The Institute for Fiscal studies, an independent research group, last month said the leadership contestants, who both promise tax cuts and smaller government spending, “need to recognise this even greater-than-usual uncertainty in the public finances.”
Looming over the new government will be the long shadow of Johnson, who leaves office a deeply unpopular prime minister whose missteps led approval ratings for the Conservative Party to plummet.
Johnson was forced to resign from office on July 7 – less than three years after romping home to an enormous landslide election victory in 2019 – after a string of scandals made his position untenable. His announcement followed months of revelations over illegal parties held in Downing Street while the country was under Covid lockdown restrictions. Johnson himself was fined by the police, making him the first prime minister in history found to have broken the law in office.
However, he rode out the so-called “Partygate” scandal for months, and it was only when his deputy chief whip was accused of sexually assaulting two men at a party and Johnson delayed in acting that his own party finally turned on him.
Whether or not Johnson will remain in politics is unknown. He may be forced to resign as a member of Parliament after a House of Commons committee gives its verdict on an investigation into the Partygate scandal and whether Johnson knowingly misled Parliament. Johnson had earlier claimed no rules were broken in Downing Street.
Regardless, Johnson will doubtless remain a high-profile figure. There is a good chance he will return to his media career as a columnist and broadcaster, though the damage to his reputation in office might mean his appeal is limited compared to how it was before he entered Downing Street.
And his legacy will be difficult for either Truss or Sunak to distance themselves from. Truss is widely seen as the Johnson continuity candidate while Sunak, despite resigning from Johnson’s cabinet and triggering the PM’s downfall, was his finance minister during the pandemic and is closely associated with Johnson’s premiership.