British Prime Minister Liz Truss Resigns
British Prime Minister Liz Truss resigns in the wake of criticism over her disastrous economic policies (UK Government/Wikimedia Commons).
After only 45 days in office, British Prime Minister Liz Truss of the Conservative party resigned on October 20, 2022. Appointed on September 6 of the same year, Truss holds the record as the shortest-serving prime minister in British history. On October 25, Rishi Sunak was appointed prime minister, becoming the third person to hold the office in just two months.
Despite her short time in office, Truss became the center of much criticism. One columnist for The Economist magazine wrote that Truss only had “seven days in control,” which is roughly “the shelf-life of a lettuce.” Three days after the article’s release, the Daily Star set up a live video feed of a lettuce adorned with fake eyes and other props beside a picture of Truss. The video has since received 46,000 likes on YouTube, making it the channel’s most-liked video.
By the end of her term, Truss’ approval rating dropped 70 points (to only 10 percent), making her the most unpopular party leader in British history. In fact, she was on track to match Russian President Vladimir Putin’s four percent favorability rate among the British people. On the other hand, the progressive Labour Party soared in the polls. “The only thing that keeps her in office,” commented Rob Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester, “is the inability to agree on a successor or a transitioning process.”
Truss’ Economic Plan
While in office, Truss hoped to create a “new [economic] approach for a new era focused on growth,” proposing several conservative measures to achieve this, including tax cuts estimated to total 45 billion British pounds over five years. These tax cuts included several provisions, including canceling a planned increase in corporation taxes and scrapping the 45% tax paid on incomes over £150,000 ($166,770). In justifying the tax cuts, Truss’ Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng, said, “we believe high taxes reduce incentives to work, deter investment, and hinder enterprise.”
However, many were skeptical of Truss’ actions. “It’s half a century since we’ve seen tax cuts announced on this scale,” said Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. And as such skeptics predicted, following the tax cuts, the economy descended into chaos: the pound fell to its lowest level against the dollar in 30 years, inflation and mortgage rates hit record highs, and the cost of borrowing spiraled. As a result, it is predicted that the average living standards for U.K. citizens will fall 7 percent over the next two financial years, which would wipe out any growth from the previous eight years. “Anyone could have seen that this wasn’t going to fly,” Ford said, “this was a stark-staringly obviously incredible plan in the strict definition of that word: It lacked credibility from the moment it arrived.”
However, the economy was not the only thing in crisis following Truss’ actions. As Ford explained, “[Truss’ financial plan] wasn’t just a total disaster with the markets; it was a total disaster electorally.” Her proposal to cut taxes on the wealthy while raising corporate taxes resulted in a hostile reaction from even her own conservative party. In the wake of extreme criticism, Kwarteng was fired, becoming the shortest-serving finance minister since the 12th century.
According to Truss, the purpose of her financial plan was to achieve a “low-tax, high-growth economy that would take advantage of the freedoms of Brexit.” Ultimately, however, her plans resulted in calls for a new prime minister.
Election of a new Prime Minister
Following the Conservative Party’s decision to appoint a new prime minister, the opposing Labour Party called for an immediate national election. In the U.K., elections are constitutionally mandated to be held every five years, but the majority party can choose to hold one earlier. However, as with Truss, Conservative Party members opted to choose the next prime minister themselves.
So, following Truss’ resignation, party leadership began surveying prospective nominees. Jeremy Hunt, the nation’s new Treasury chief of three days, was seen as a top candidate. However, he said he would not seek the prime ministership again, having already failed twice. Boris Johnson, Truss’ predecessor, also announced a bid for the prime ministership, just months after resigning amid several scandals. However, as former Conservative Party leader William Hague said on Friday, Johnson’s return would lead to a “death spiral” for the party. “Returning Boris Johnson would seem to most British people as yet another sick joke played on the country by the Conservative Party… and not one of them would find it the slightest bit funny,” commented Anand Menon, professor of politics and foreign affairs at King's College London. Another candidate for Prime Minister was Penny Mordaunt, an experienced politician who stood in for Truss as Leader of the House of Commons after Truss ascended to the prime ministership. However, both Johnson and Mordaunt dropped out of the race, leaving the final candidate, Rishi Sunak, to become prime minister.
Who is Rishi Sunak?
Rishi Sunak was former Prime Minister Boris Johnson's finance minister and a vocal critic of Truss' economic plans. He is also credited with steering the British economy through the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, he was a favorite to replace Truss. Following his appointment by King Charles III on October 25, Sunak became the first British-Asian, Hindu, and person of color to be prime minister. He is also the youngest prime minister for more than 200 years at just 42 years old.
In his first speech as prime minister, Sunak promised to “unite [the] country not with words but with action.” However, he only has about two years before the next national election to make good on this promise and restore confidence in the Conservative party, which has held the majority in Parliament for the past 12 years. Experts say his focus should be on fixing the economic crisis caused by Brexit and Truss's economic policies. “It's the Conservative Party's last chance to put in a prime minister who might achieve some kind of stability,” says Bronwen Maddox, CEO of Chatham House, a London-based think tank.
So far, the economy has reacted positively to the selection of Sunak as prime minister. He reduced government borrowing and interest spending, allowing for more long-term spending, and the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, canceled the tax cuts enacted by Truss. On November 17, Sunak and Hunt also revealed a 55 billion pound package of tax raises and spending cuts to replenish the government's finances and restore confidence among investors. However, he mentioned that he plans to delay the largest spending cuts until after the next election to “make sure this recession is shallower and hurts people less.” Still, many question Sunak’s choice to raise taxes. As Johnson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sunak was passionate about lowering taxes, although careful to do so only when economic conditions allowed. A spokesperson for Sunak said he could not say when the prime minister would return to being a “low-tax Tory,” although he did comment that decisions such as cutting taxes had to be considered alongside the other “profound economic challenges” facing the country.
Despite these economic successes, however, Sunak is also the center of much controversy. At a recent G20 summit in Bali, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab revealed that Sunak is under investigation for bullying. This news came just days after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson resigned for similar accusations. Sunak is also under fire for reappointing Suella Braverman as Home Secretary after she resigned a few days before for sharing official documents through her personal email, a breach of the British Ministerial Code. Many conservative members of Parliament are nervous that Sunak will not be much better than Truss. “We know we are in a really tight spot, and nothing Rishi is doing at the moment suggests he knows how to get us out of it,” said one Conservative member of Parliament, although he insisted he was a strong supporter of the new prime minister.
Following Truss's sudden resignation, the U.K. was plunged into political and economic chaos, only worsened by the unexpected passing of Queen Elizabeth II. Whether Rishi Sunak will be able to make good on his campaign promises and bring the country together again, however, is yet to be seen.
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