By Arab News
By Chris Doyle*
The soap opera surrounding the UK Conservative Party has a great scriptwriter now. The Westminster village is a never-ending production line of scandal and intrigue emanating from the heart of a “governing” party that has been in power for the past 12 years.
Now Britain is to get its third prime minister in less than two months and its fifth in six years. Meanwhile, it barely has a functioning government.
The former finance minister Rishi Sunak, who will take the helm, is the country’s first non-white prime minister; the first, as a Hindu, to practice a non-Christian faith; and, at 42, the youngest leader in modern British history.
This was the 60-meter sprint election as opposed to the marathon summer vote that landed Liz Truss the premiership. It took a mere couple of days to determine who will run a country in economic crisis and a party that is near ungovernable.
In an extraordinarily easy transition to power, Sunak was chosen without having to reveal a single policy or position, or enter into any debate. What we know is that he will stick to a tighter fiscal policy and previously voted to leave the EU, though he never appears as a devout Brexiteer. On foreign affairs, it is assumed he will pretty much stick to existing positions, not least with regard to Ukraine.
However, the past few days of campaigning have shown just how close the Conservative Party is to the precipice. Sunak will face a party with many MPs blaming him for having plotted to bring down Boris Johnson in the summer. There is plenty of bad blood around.
Amazingly, Johnson was under serious consideration for the leadership. It was only in July that he was booted out of office after scandal upon scandal beset his leadership. Yet the “Bring back Boris” bandwagon led to Johnson hauling himself off a Caribbean beach, dusting off the sand and hot-footing it back to London. His loyal support base was cheering from the rafters, but most of the country watched on in horror. One MP was quoted as saying that Johnson was up for it, and was “surprised to see he had his shirt tucked in.”
But Johnson was hamstrung as he faces a parliamentary inquiry that may find him guilty of misleading the House of Commons. It could recommend his suspension be confirmed by a parliamentary vote, possibly leading to a by-election. Imagine. If Johnson had returned as a freshly reinstalled prime minister, he may have become the first ever to be suspended from the Commons. If the soap opera scriptwriter had the power, this is what would have happened.
That Johnson was even considered a credible candidate shows where Conservative Party is. In July, he had a favorability rating of minus 53. Truss went even lower with a minus 70 rating. In the polls, the Tory party is a jaw-dropping 30-35 percent behind Labour.
Memories are short in modern-day politics. It was only in July that more than 50 of Johnson’s ministers and parliamentary aides resigned within 50 hours. They argued that he was not fit for office. Even the loyal media tore into Johnson over his failings. Yet, only a few months later, some of that number argue that Johnson can save the party.
Sunak has to handle a situation where Britain has just had a prime minister who lasted 44 days before resigning. Truss was the shortest-serving leader in the country’s history, and arguably the least popular. She tanked the British economy, and oversaw the collapse of the pound and a surge in interest rates. Britain’s international standing is at risk.
All of this is happening to the traditional party of government, a party that has received more votes than any other in the combined elections of the past 100 years. Many are asking why the Tory talent locker is so bare that the party almost reverted to a known failure.
It was meant to be the Labour Party in irreversible decline. At the 2019 elections, Labour won 202 seats, its lowest number since 1935. Most observers believed this made the Tories almost certain to win the next election as well.
Go back 20 years and British politics was pretty dull and achingly predictable. In that era, everyone knew who was going to be prime minister; elections were easy to predict; and, by and large, the parties all fought for the center ground. If you left the country for six months, you would return to familiar faces in Westminster. Britain was a beacon of reliability and known, rightly or wrongly, for its sensible approach to politics.
Think of it. Margaret Thatcher lasted 11 years, Tony Blair 10, and even John Major did six. Every election result in that period was predicted and only in the Major premiership was there not a massive majority.
Yet in little over a decade that sense of stability and calm has all but evaporated. Britain had a coalition government for five years — unheard of. But even that was reassuringly calm compared with the Brexit era.
The 2016 referendum to leave the EU still scars British politics. Politicians are still defined by whether they were Remainers or Brexiteers. How long will these epithets last? The divisions are deeper than ever. The Brexiteers who dominate the Conservative Party are unlikely to ever concede that leaving the world’s largest trading bloc has hit British economic interests.
Can Sunak bring this psychodrama to an end? The new leader has to work for the country, and ignore the fireworks and mayhem inside this party. The economy has to be set on a painful course correction. Markets and allies have to be reassured with a competent governing order that reverts to proper policy-making processes that are less concerned with the next day’s headlines and focused more on the longer-term national interest.
What will happen to one of the most successful party-political machines in Europe — who knows? The party is so split that it is hard to see it surviving as a single entity. It needs a revamp, triggered by a deep soul-search as to how it landed up with moral failure from Johnson and fiscal failure from Truss.
Sunak will have to exude reassurance and calm if the soap opera is to end. If it does not, it is hard to see how the party of Churchill and Thatcher can survive.
• Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, in London. Twitter: @Doylech