Foreign Affairs

The Tumultous Leadership of The U.K. Conservative Party

In the wake of Former Prime Minister Liz Truss’s historic resignation, after a mere 45 days in ascending to the office, pundits and onlookers around the world were startled at the political mayhem engulfing the U.K. Most notably, a ball of lettuce went viral on the internet after outlasting Truss, highlighting the absurdity of the situation and instability of the Conservative Party’s leadership. Why was her tenure cut so short, and what exactly does this say about the current state of U.K. politics? In order to understand the circumstances surrounding her resignation, it is important to take a quick retrospective look at post-Brexit politics, specifically within the Conservative Party. 

The narrow decision made by public referendum for the U.K. to leave the European Union marked a critical turning point in British politics. The unexpected result was viewed as an upheaval of establishment politics, similar to the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president that same year. The incumbent Prime Minister himself, David Cameron, had campaigned to remain in the E.U. and eventually resigned in the aftermath of the referendum as he had promised to do so if voters chose to leave. With his absence, the Conservative Party promptly began searching for a replacement through their internal electoral process. They eventually elected Theresa May as leader of the Party, who led the country for nearly 3 years. Shortly in her tenure, the Conservative Party suffered losses in the 2017 general election due to unpopularity with her government’s approach to Brexit and she eventually resigned in 2019 due to gridlock on negotiating trade with the E.U. The next pick, Boris Johnson, was again chosen within the party and finalized all agreements regarding Brexit, putting the divisive and arduous issue behind the Conservative Party once and for all. In fact, the former Prime Minister led the Conservative party to a historic general election victory in 2019 by giving them the largest majority since 1987. However, the government became embroiled in scandal after scandal during his tenure, and Johnson largely maintained his low approval ratings. The missteps ranged from illegally shutting down parliament, not adhering to COVID lockdown rules, financial misconduct regarding refurbishing his home, and appointing a man to his government whom which he knew had prior sexual misconduct allegations. All of these scandals together forced him to eventually resign in the summer of 2022, becoming the third Conservative leader to resign in a row. In the aftermath of his tumultuous tenure, onlookers and pundits hoped that his successor would offer a much needed source of stability before the next general election in 2025. 

The ascension of Liz Truss as leader of the Conservative Party took place shortly after Johnson’s resignation, and she had already begun to raise controversy before she was even formally appointed by the Monarch as Prime Minister. In order to combat rising energy costs and inflation, her government proposed a plan, reminiscent of Thatcher’s economic policies, to aggressively cut taxes without making it clear on how they would compensate for the lost funding. The plan also bypassed the normal process of being audited by the Office for Budget Responsibility, leading to the Pound and subsequent markets falling to record lows as investors became shook in the confidence of the U.K.s ability to pay for such a hefty proposal. Consequently, Truss’s plan caused bond prices to fall, which in turn caused borrowing costs to rise throughout the country. The economic fallout was so drastic that even foreign leaders like President Biden offered criticism of their historic ally’s fiscal policy decisions. Eventually, after being pressured by a historically low approval rating, various Cabinet resignations, and the economic pain ensuing across the U.K., Liz Truss succumbed to the fate of her three predecessors by opting to resign. Rishi Sunak’s rise to power shortly afterwards now marks Britain’s fifth leader in just over six years, and its third since the last election. Only time will tell if Sunak can weather the damage left behind by Truss amidst growing calls for a snap election by the opposing Labour party and other Conservative Members of Parliament. 

After looking over the brief history of the Conservative Party’s mishaps, it can be hard to understand how exactly they’ve been able to retain power in the face of damning scandals. A big part of this is in fact the state of the Labour Party, the Conservative’s biggest opposition. From Jeremyn Corbyn to their current leader Keir Starmer, the party has struggled to find a central message to rally voters around in recent years and failed to gain significant support. However, the recent fallout of Johnson and Truss’s tenures has given them the edge in recent polling, placing them as potential favorites if a snap election does take place. This can best be interpreted though more as a sign of disapproval of Conservatives rather than approval of Labour and their party manifesto. 

The current state of the Conservative Party is a product of pursuing ill-fated policies, remaining disconnected with the general public, and using a selection process which perpetuates for its leaders that only damages the legitimacy of their Prime Ministers. Without any significant institutional changes to the Conservative Party and time spent pushing new policies in lieu of attempting to revive past ideologies of Thatcherism and trickle down economics, political turmoil will continue to engulf the party. What has happened up to this point is not a fluke or a mere exception, it is a product of dysfunctional government at the hands of the Conservative Party.

Categories: Foreign Affairs

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