Saturday, September 23, 2023

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are the finalists in the British Prime Minister’s race

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Shreya Christina
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The UK is one step closer to getting a new prime minister.

The Conservative Party has limited the contest to two finalists who will compete to take over the leadership of the Conservative Party and of the United Kingdom from Boris Johnson.

Contribution paying members of the Conservative Party will decide between Rishi Sunak, former Chancellor of the Treasury (nice name for finance minister) who helped kick off the cabinet revolt against Johnson who caused his dismissal; and Liz Truss, the Secretary of State. Sunak is expected; he had led the vote among MPs during all the first rounds of voting. But Truss defeated Penny Mordaunt, another minister who had chased Sunak in previous rounds of voting among their fellow MPs and who had garnered a lot of party support during the race.

Both Sunak and Truss will have to convince the Conservative Party that they are ready to face the mounting challenges facing the UK: inflation and the cost of living crisis, war in Ukraine and its economic consequences, and the loose ends of Brexit. And the next leader will have to rehabilitate a conservative party, that is… now struggling with potential votersand define the party away from the controversies and dramas of the Johnson administration.

The last time the Conservatives did this, in 2019, Johnson was the obvious frontrunner, and the contest was all about Brexit. In 2022, the leadership contest is a lot less simple. Both Sunak and Truss served in Johnson’s cabinet, so neither form a completely clean break with Johnson. Both will likely try to use the other’s data inside and outside the government and against the other – Truss, for example, on Sunak’s handling of the economy, Sunak on Truss’ lack of experience handling the economy. But the candidate that emerges is likely to be the one most likely to help them win, according to the Conservative Party.

The two finalists were always seen as possible successors to Johnson. Now they will fight for the chance.

The next British Prime Minister will also come from the Conservatives, or Tories, as they are called. The actual composition of Parliament will not change – early elections cannot be ruled out, but they are not currently on the table – and the Conservatives will retain their majority and control of the government. For now, the next general election won’t take place until around spring 2024, so whoever takes over from Johnson will present themselves as the person who can best carry the Conservatives to victory next time.

But this also means that the selection process is a bit exclusive – limited to Conservative MPs and dues party members. Conservative MPs voted first, with one contender eliminated in each round, until two were left. Now about 200,000 party members will choose between Truss and Sunak, the two finalists. The winner will be announced on September 5. Johnson will remain prime minister until then, after which it will be “hasta la vista, baby.”

In the beginning, one of the questions for Conservatives was how eager the party was to break with Boris Johnson and the chaos and scandals of his administration. But both Sunak and Truss have raised their profile as part of Johnson’s government, which also means they’ve supported him through Partygate and many of Johnson’s other deceptions. (Sunak was fined next to Johnson for violating Covid-19 pandemic rules.) Sunak eventually resigned from government and helped force Johnson’s impeachment, and Truss did not, though she cited Johnson’s resignation the right decision.

MPs’ preferences may be based on experience, which both Sunak and Truss have – even when it comes to records that are easier to research. They each offer something different: Sunak will tout his economic credentials, lead the UK through the pandemic and its aftermath, and be a steady hand to steer the country through the current cost of living crisis. That comes with the possible caveat that the cost of living crisis began to brew under his watch.

Truss, as Secretary of State, will likely rely on her experience on the international stage. She has helped negotiate trade agreements after Brexit and represented the United Kingdom during the war with Ukraine. Both Sunak and Truss are Brexit supporters (though Truss was a later convert), and Truss is one of the heaviest voices on the European Union and the outstanding issues surrounding Brexit.

The race is still fairly open, although Truss may have an advantage. YouGov surveys of Conservative Party members released Tuesday showed Truss handily defeated Sunak in a head-to-head clash.

Sunak is a former banker and a very rich man, and that may not quite fit the mood of the Conservative Party, which expanded its workers’ base in the 2019 election that Johnson helped sweep them. It may also not fit the mood of the country, which is facing an inflationary crisis. Sunak has also opposed things like tax cuts until the country’s finances and economy are in better shape, while Truss has pledged to cut taxes – although details of how are less clear.

At the same time, Sunak does represent what the conservatives can see as his future. He is young – just 42 – and if he prevails, he would be the first British Prime Minister of South Asian descent. The Conservative Party has made an effort to diversify its representation in Parliamentand the ascent of Sunak is proof of that.

It doesn’t matter if Truss or Sunak take over, both have a monumental task ahead of them. The country’s current heat wave is a reminder that the climate crisis is not going away. UK inflation is at its highest point in 40 yearsand the risks of even more power failures the war in Ukraine and Russian sanctions could exacerbate that emergency. The war in Ukraine is likely to continue and the UK’s next leader will have to manage that response and work with allies and partners as much as possible. And things with partners aren’t as great as the UK has done threatened to blow up the Brexit deal it negotiated with the European Union, risking tensions and a possible trade war.

In light of these challenges, Conservatives may have bet that Johnson’s policies, without Johnson himself, may be for the best now.

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