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Truss will win, but what next?

With under two weeks to go before the September 2 deadline to cast the votes, the race for the Conservative party leadership – and the next British prime minister – between Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former Chancellor Rishi Sunak appears to be almost decided in favour of the third British woman prime minister.

Meanwhile, the bookies’ odds, too, continue to be emphatically in favour of Ms Truss at 88 per cent compared to 12 per cent for Mr Sunak – further corroborating the initial predictions of the political analysts. And, similarly, the results of all the opinion polls are pointing towards this eventuality, unless Mr Sunak comes up with some miraculous formula in the last week to pull off a “stunning comeback” to enter 10 Downing Street.

The fact is that from the moment the two were declared as the final candidates, it has been clear that Truss has a big support base within the Tories, and would easily emerge as the winner of this contest. In an Opinium poll for The Observer, showing that Truss is having 61 per cent support of the Conservative members while Sunak lingering behind at 39b per cent, one thing was clear: both of them lack the charisma to ignite enthusiasm. In this poll, when the Conservative members were asked whether they would prefer one of them to Johnson to run the party and country and offered the choice of Johnson still being the Prime Minister, or Truss taking over, around 63 per cent of Tory members polled said they wanted to see Johnson to be still in charge against 22 per cent who favoured Truss. On the other side, 68 per cent said they would still want to see Johnson at Downing Street rather than being replaced by Sunak, who was preferred by just 19 per cent.

So, the wave of neo-populism is still alive in the UK and Boris Johnson, whose claim to fame is ‘thriving on crises’, is likely to keep casting his shadow over the Conservative Party in the coming days – or may even prompt him to consider another attempt at the premiership in case Truss is unable to steer the country out of the current financial and energy crises. The contest between Ms Truss and Mr Sunak has kindled a new debate in the political and academic circles in the UK about the methodology being adopted by the Conservative Party to elect its leader as well as prime minister.

The Financial Times criticized this methodology in its editorial on August 15: “Millions worry about how they will pay their winter heating bills. The UK government, meanwhile, is frozen in inaction as it waits for the result of a two-month, presidential-style campaign to elect the next Conservative party leader and prime minister… After Boris Johnson’s elevation in 2019, this is the second time in three years that a UK prime minister has been chosen this way. It would be better not to repeat it”.

The criticism has two angles: time and money. Ever since July 7, when Boris Johnson tendered his resignation, there has been a long hiatus in the UK government because of this tedious and protracted method of election of the Tory leader. This long pause in the UK government has actually paralyzed important decision-making at a time when the cost-of-living crisis is aggravating in the UK with each passing day. For the last two months, both the candidates have been running their campaign on the model of the American presidential election on the electronic and social media – including a series of national TV debates – to convince the 150,000 or so members of the Conservative Party, which makes only 0.32 per cent of 46.5 electorate. All this is being done for the last six weeks for only a small slice of “undecided voters”, which, as the recent polls have reconfirmed, has not narrowed down the gap between the two candidates since day one.

For a ruling party whose programme has been endorsed in a general election, the replacement of a leader midterm should be channeled through MPs, instead of party members. The voice of party members could be included through consultations between MPs with their party members in their respective constituencies. It would then allow the government quickly to go back to work and start managing the crises of the day. The span of time given to the two candidates is too much by all standards and has inversely damaged the internal cohesion of the Conservative Party as well.

The long period of campaigning has pushed both Truss and Sunak into populist pitches. Ironically, in several ways, both the contenders for the premiership are unappealing to their target audience and have already exhibited that they are not beneath populism and demagoguery in their ‘presidential-style’ campaign to win the support of party faithful. We are witnessing a season of counterfeiters in this race for the Tory leadership. Sunak, despite knowing well that he is far behind in this race, is proving something of an adept in this, diminishing his privileged background in order to gloss and flaunt invisible, underprivileged credentials. At the same time, Truss is also playing on false images, though she is smart enough to do so in a more confident way.

After years of dominating the UK political landscape, Brexit has been reduced to a minor issue so far in the melee for the successor of Boris Johnson, with sky-rocketing energy bills and the cost-of-living crisis looming large over the contest. Nonetheless, two things are clear: one, Truss is going to be the 78th prime minister of Britain, and two, Boris Johnson’s neo-populism is still sturdy and intact, which may compel him to re-enter the ring with more fervor at a suitable time. Truss will inherit a long list of acute challenges – and Boris will be certainly waiting for her to falter so as to pave the way for his re-entry into the fray.

Dr Imran Khalid, "Truss will win, but what next?," The News. 2022-08-23.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political landscape , Political analysts , General election , Presidential election , Social media , Liz Truss , United Kingdom , UK , MPs