The Battle to Replace Boris Johnson
Following British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ouster less than two weeks ago, Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) have already narrowed the list of probable successors from eight to only two. In a stunning contrast to drawn out primary seasons in the United States, last Wednesday they selected Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (a post similar to Secretary of the Treasury), and Elizabeth Truss, the Foreign Secretary, as their top contenders. Truss narrowly beat out Penny Mordaunt, a former Defense Secretary seen as an alternative to the Pro-Boris Truss and anti-Boris Sunak by a margin of 113 to 105, with Sunak leading with the support of 137 MPs. This sets up a six-week campaign to win the votes of the 160,000 strong Conservative Party membership, with the result to be announced on September 5, and an expectation that the winner will replace Boris Johnson as Prime Minister on September 6.
Superficially, this is an ideological race. Elizabeth Truss is campaigning on tax cuts, support for Ukraine, forcing the E.U. to renegotiate the Northern Irish Protocol (which creates a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.) and closer alignment with the United States against China. She has also pledged aid for the cost of living and increased defense spending. Sunak, meanwhile, has argued that the U.K. cannot afford either tax cuts or new spending if it wishes to tackle inflation. He has been generally mum on foreign policy, other than vague pledges to “stand up” to foreign powers, leaving the implication he also feels the economic times are too dire for further conflict.
The dividing lines drawn by the Brexit Referendum, as well as the changes in the electorate driven by the global realignment, have played a role in the Conservative leadership contest, but in a peculiarly British manner. Truss, now the standard bearer of the Brexit cause and the candidate backed by the Tory “Right,” campaigned for the U.K. to remain in the European Union during the 2016 referendum. Both Sunak and Mordaunt backed the movement to leave the E.U. It is easy to ascribe this apparent reversal to opportunism, as much of the anti-Truss and anti-Tory media has done. Without a doubt there has been an element of ideological versatility in a career which has taken Truss from a Liberal Democratic student at Oxford calling for the abolition of the monarchy to the standard bearer of the Right. But as with Boris Johnson, in whose footsteps she is seen as following, and even Margaret Thatcher, it is an evolution that makes a bit more sense in context than it does from afar.
It is worth noting that there were always two distinct campaigns for Brexit. The first was deeply associated with the new populist faction of the Conservative Party. Championed by Nigel Farage and UKIP from without, and a host of think-tanks within, it felt that the European Union prevented the U.K. from aligning itself with its natural allies in the United States, Canada, and Australia. It favored free markets, lower taxes, a smaller state, and a more “Americanized” Britain. On all of these issues, the alignment with the European Union was seen as an obstacle. Culturally and socially, membership in the E.U. dragged British law and culture toward Europe and away from the rest of the Anglophone world. Economically, it integrated Britain into Europe as the center of Europe’s financial industry rather than the financial center of Europe. Politically, it placed the British Prime Minister as a junior partner in a triumvirate with the Chancellor of Germany and the President of France, imposing enormous policy costs for aligning with the United States, as Tony Blair learned. For the populists, Brexit was a chance to break away.
There was another part of the “Vote Leave” tradition, however. This second group felt that rather than being too closely aligned with Europe rather than the U.S., the U.K. was too aligned with both. In their view, Britain’s advantage, or at least London’s, was as a potential global financial and trading center, capable of rivaling not just Frankfurt, but New York and Singapore. In their view, alignment with E.U. regulations on disclosure and human rights, and political alignment with the U.S., prevented the U.K. from enjoying the fruits of making London a playground for the Russian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern elites.
The 2016 Referendum campaign forced both groups to cooperate. In practice, Vote Leave, the official campaign, was run by the second faction, led by their guru, the eccentric Dominic Cummings, a strategist obsessed with adapting Silicon Valley startup culture to governance ofo the U.K. Cummings won, largely by playing down the differences between the groups and running a highly technical campaign. The reckoning between the two groups was delayed by the need to defend their victory. In 2019, Cummings and his allies masterminded Boris Johnson’s victory, and Cummings for nearly a year was among Johnson’s most powerful advisers. Their falling out, due to a power struggle between Cummings and Johnson’s wife Carrie, was a godsend to the free-market faction, as it turned all of their enemies against each other.
One division it caused was between Rishi Sunak, who was all but installed in the Chancellorship by Cummings, and Johnson. Sunak, and to a lesser degree Mordaunt, hail from the technocratic Brexit tradition, which explains why Mordaunt backed Leave, yet had a book whose introduction was written by Bill Gates. It also should provide context to the policy divisions on display in the campaign.
Why is Sunak, a “Leaver,” running a campaign opposing lower taxes, and a more interventionist monetary policy? Why is Truss, a “Remainer,” calling for extensive personal tax cuts and help for the cost of living? The answer is that it is a clash between those who think Britain’s future should be run by aligning peoples – the U.K. with the United States and Angloshpere – and those who think it should be based upon a transnational alliance of elites. It would not make sense to describe either as left-wing. Both are worldviews of the Right. Nor is Truss “illiberal,” as it has become fashionablef to label populists. She is the candidate who has championed the defense of Ukraine, and confronting China over Hong Kong and Taiwan.
In fact, there is an argument that the more technocratically focused Sunak is the illiberal choice. Representing a constituency which believes Britain does not have the money or the geopolitical position to play great power politics which antagonizes anyone, he has opposed Truss’s promise to increase the defense budget. He has written generic Twitter posts pledging solidarity with Ukraine and to stand up to China, but he has opposed all of Truss’s suggested methods of doing so. It is not a surprise then that the Ukrainian Foreign Minister and many Hong Kong exile groups have expressed open support for Truss. They fear Rishi Sunak will make a cost-benefit calculation about the relative value of supporting the Taiwanese and Ukrainian causes, and find them not worth the price.
When it comes to Brexit, this also explains the almost fanatical support Truss is receiving from Northern Irish Unionists and opponents of Scottish Nationalism. Sunak, whose major base is in London, is seen as not overly concerned about regions which are economic drains, especially if it would produce trade wars which would damage the economy as a whole.
Right now, Truss is a strong favorite. The nature of the contest, where the vote is restricted to the 160,000 members of the Conservative Party, favors her. They are a demographically conservative lot. Almost 40% are over age 65, and 76% supported the move to leave the E.U. In a recent poll, Truss led Sunak 62%-38%, losing only among Remainers.
Sunak’s selling point, however, will be exhaustion. The U.K. has an inflation rate of 9.4%, a figure which is estimated to pass 11% this fall. Energy prices for homeowners are expected to increase by 60% this October, and there is a real chance that the U.K., which receives its natural gas from Europe, will run out this winter. The British Pound has lost nearly 15% of its value this year. The Conservative party trails the Labour opposition by double-digit margins. Sunak’s argument is likely to focus around the thesis that Truss, who performed poorly in debates and is seen as promising policies blamed for the worsening economic situation, will fare worse in a general election.
In this campaign Sunak will benefit from the near-uniform backing of the financial elite, with Citibank already having warned that a Truss government would pose a threat to the welfare of the British economy. Sunak, however, suffers from some glaring weaknesses. First, as Chancellor, he presided over the economy for the last two and a half years. It is relatively hard to separate himself from it. His efforts to attack Truss for being a continuation of Johnson runs afoul not just of his own tenure under Johnson, but the perception that his betrayal is what brought down the Prime Minister. Finally, it is unclear if he offers a solution to any of the problems, including being able to win a general election. Sunak polls slightly better than Truss, and would be expected to run a more competent administration, but his image is not particularly positive. He is the richest member of Parliament, and his wife was a U.S. resident for tax purposes, allowing her to dodge tens of millions of dollars she otherwise would have owed. By contrast, Liz Truss attended a state school. Sunak’s liabilities here were evident at the second Tory leadership debate, where Sunak asked Truss, “You’ve been both a Lib Dem and Remainer. Which one do you regret most?” only to have Truss explain that she grew up as the daughter of two Labour activists and attended a school without many of the resources that Sunak enjoyed at Winchester College, inspiring her to begin a political journey to the Right. Whatever the accuracy of Truss’s remarks, Labour Party strategists must have been relishing the sneering tone in which schoolboy Sunak had delivered the blow, portraying himself as a caricature of a bully in the process.
Whoever wins will inherit a difficult international and domestic situation. Their saving grace will be a Labour Party which, though it now leads by default, has under Keir Starmer been wholly inert. There is a chance for Conservatives to recover the initiative. The question is whether party members believe it is worth doing so by risking a policy agenda which will upset many at home and abroad with Truss, or whether it is safest to embrace a management of the status quo under Sunak in the hope that the country’s economic fortunes change. Polls indicate they are currently leaning towards a gamble on the former option.