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November 11, 2022 / Riskline Informer

Can Rishi Sunak end the political turmoil plaguing the UK to address the economic issues facing the country?

Rishi Sunak has become the UK’s third prime minister in eight weeks, capping off several months of political turmoil marked by party infighting, political scandals and a drop in public trust.

By Samir Brahimi

Introduction

Under Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party secured a landslide victory during the general election in 2019, securing their highest number of seats in over 30 years and making significant gains in Labour strongholds across northern England. However, Johnson’s tenure as leader was marked by several scandals, including breaching his own COVID-19 lockdown rules while attending gatherings at 10 Downing Street as well as Conservative members of parliament (MPs) violating lobbying rules, which led to a dramatic drop in public trust.

This, combined with losses in key local elections, contributed to a vote of no confidence in June 2022, which Johnson subsequently won despite 41 percent of his party voting to remove him. The vote highlighted the rift within the party, and only one month later Johnson was forced to quit after dozens of Conservative MPs resigned over his leadership.

Liz Truss was appointed prime minister in early September after defeating Rishi Sunak in the subsequent Conservative Party leadership election with a campaign focused on low-tax and high-growth. The Truss era was short but not sweet. Following two weeks of official mourning and a pause in politics due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II on 8 September, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, delivered the mini-budget on 23 September, amid a backdrop of a cost of living crisis, proposing tax cuts for corporations and the UK’s biggest earners funded by a large increase in borrowing.

Kwarteng’s mini-budget triggered a mini-domestic financial crisis, with the pound crashing to a record low, government bonds into freefalling and mortgage interest rates increasing. Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) criticised the mini-budget for spooking global markets. Despite initially sticking with the plan, Truss was forced to make a U-turn, sacking Kwarteng and appointing Jeremy Hunt, who swiftly reversed nearly every aspect of the mini-budget.

It was at this time, the tabloid The Daily Star began a live stream posing the question of whether an iceberg lettuce in a blonde wig would outlast the prime minister. Simultaneously, a number of Conservative MPs who never initially supported Truss’s leadership bid began calling for her resignation.

The resignation of home secretary Suella Braverman, allegations of bullying during a parliamentary vote on fracking and a lobbying scandal concerning Truss’s chief of staff also helped to seal the fate of the prime minister, who, despite declaring that she was a “fighter and not a quitter” on 19 October, announced her resignation on 20 October.

Where next?

Rishi Sunak, after initially losing to Truss in September, became prime minister after winning the October Conservative leadership election unopposed. Since former prime minister David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on Brexit, the Conservatives have been plagued by instability and infighting, with Sunak becoming the country’s fifth prime minister in six years.

Sunak is the first British Asian prime minister, the first Hindu prime minister, and the second-ever youngest prime minister. But despite making inroads to bring the party together, it is not known yet whether he will be able to unite the Conservatives in the medium to long-term, particularly if the pro-Johnson faction within the party chooses to undermine him.

Sunak also still has to contend with one of the worst inboxes for a British leader in decades, with an energy bill crisis, spiralling inflation, a cost of living crisis and a public sector at breaking point. Although his appointment has helped to calm the markets and assure business leaders in the short-term, further austerity measures and cuts are likely to be imposed and will only exacerbate the situation facing households. The economic situation will also continue to be a driver for demonstrations and industrial action as well as nationalist and independence movements. New public sector strikes are expected over the winter.

Calls for a general election from the opposition Labour party, as well as large parts of the population, are likely to go unheard, with the Conservatives polling so poorly they would be facing a wipeout should a vote be held. The Conservatives must seek to repair their reputation, however, if the party does become “ungovernable”, Sunak may be unable to hold off on calls for an early election, particularly given his lack of legitimacy and mandate to rule.

Summary

After only 44 days in office, Liz Truss announced her resignation on 20 October, becoming the shortest-serving prime minister in British history, and continuing the political turmoil which has gripped the United Kingdom (UK) over the past several months. However, it remains to be seen whether new prime minister Rishi Sunak will be able to mend the internal divisions within the Conservative Party, repair Britain’s international image and steer the country out of its current economic crisis.

Samir Brahimi is Riskline’s EMEA Team Leader.

Foresight 2023
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