By Arab News
By Mohamed Chebaro*
No one wants to be Liz Truss. Britain’s embattled prime minister might survive the week or even a few more weeks after she removed her friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng, and U-turned on nearly all of the unfunded measures of her cursed mini-budget. A bit of certainty, discipline and, dare I say it, common sense have all returned to British politics and the economy after the appointment of Jeremy Hunt, who scrapped all the toxic tax cuts for the rich and the plan to borrow money to pay for badly needed social policies amid one of the worst cost-of-living crises the country has ever witnessed. But is it enough for Truss to survive?
The problem is that her admission that “mistakes were made” and her subsequent apologies and U-turns have left her powerless and lacking the authority needed to remedy the damage her fantasy economics has dealt the country, its standing and its hard-earned position as a secure and certain place to invest, do business and flourish, for corporates as well as individuals. It is that reputation that I believe is at the heart of the problem and is why Truss and her government will not be able to rebound.
The faction of the Conservative Party she has joined had the narrowest of visions to exit the EU and “take back control,” boosting Britain into believing that it could become “Singapore-on-Thames” overnight. This left many scrambling to understand how Truss and — Boris Johnson before her — were to pull that off, while at the same time being thin on details, planning and substance. On their way, they sank the hard-earned certainty and trust in the pound, the financial market that for decades had been the jewel in the UK’s crown and the driver of its growth and prosperity. The red lights seen in the markets over the last couple of weeks reflect this long downward trend to finally signal that bankers and investors are inclined to believe that Britain has become riskier. They no longer have faith in what the UK has to offer.
Truss will have a near-impossible mission to scramble to recover her grasp on power after she was described as being “PM in name only” thanks to the appointment of Hunt as Treasury chief to avoid a financial meltdown. Overnight, Hunt has become the real mover and shaker, ripping up her economic plans to redress some of the immediate damage.
The saddest thing is that too much water has gone under the bridge and Truss has become powerless, humiliated, labeled a “ghost” prime minister and compared unfavorably to a head of lettuce. She remains in office largely because her party is divided about how to replace her.
The words of King Charles echo louder today than when he met her last week, greeting her with “dear oh dear,” as if Truss could restore Britain’s credibility simply by changing the chancellor. She needs to go and metamorphose herself — something she has apparently been good at, having gone from being anti-monarchy, then a centrist who joined the Liberal Democrats, then a pro-Remain Tory, before becoming a hard Brexiteer under Johnson and lastly an economy wrecker, to say the least, when she entered No. 10.
The measures taken this week have had the stabilizing effect on markets that was needed in the short term. The UK seems to have pulled itself back into the fold, with the market perception being that a dose of fiscal responsibility has been demonstrated and that the new chancellor will work with the Bank of England, the Office for Budget Responsibility and the International Monetary Fund in his drive to stabilize the economy.
But the adventure of Truss and her former chancellor has made her MPs doubtful of her ability to lead the country, as the polls have been giving the opposition Labour Party a large and growing lead, making it certain that, for the Conservatives, Truss must be replaced if they are to avoid electoral oblivion.
Under Conservative Party rules, the newly elected Truss is safe from a leadership challenge in her first year, but those rules can be changed if enough Members of Parliament want it. Some Tory MPs go even further and think that Truss can be forced to resign if the party can agree on a successor, despite the divisions that have plagued the party. Its membership ranges from far-right Brexiteers bordering on populism to the centrist One Nation Conservatives, leaving a huge gap if those hopes are to be achieved.
The rivals of Truss during the leadership contest in the summer, including the ex-Chancellor Rishi Sunak, the current House Leader Penny Mordaunt and the untarnished Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, are the names being thrown into the hat once again. Some have even been desiring the return of Boris Johnson, who was ousted earlier this year after his premiership got enmeshed in an ethics scandal that he had authored.
I have been reporting on British politics for years, but never before have I seen this level of self-inflicted chaos committed by a class of self-serving politicians. It has undermined people’s belief and trust in their government, made people anxious for their future and destroyed the credibility of the financial system. They have presided over a dwindling capacity and investments in the nation’s public services, health, education and policing, to say the least.
A general election does not have to be held until 2024 and some are calling for Truss to be given a second chance, as occasional turbulence is a norm in politics everywhere. I am minded to differ though, as Britain — since the shock 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU — has failed to heal its societal divisions and its political leaders have never stopped wrangling with the EU, despite holding two general elections and changing prime ministers three times. All this while the world has been witnessing some dire geostrategic challenges due to the Russia-Ukraine war, China’s rise under Xi Jinping and the increase in energy prices lambasting economies everywhere. This makes it crucial for the UK to find a new leader — through whichever formula possible — who is capable of facing up to these unparalleled adversities, so that the political and economic damage caused recently does not become a trend for which future UK generations will pay dearly.
• Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.