Boris Johnson’s replacement was aimed at letting the UK’s ruling Conservatives move on from the chaos and distractions that are distracting voters, Bloomberg comments.
Instead, a long leadership battle has exposed deep divisions in the ruling party and reinforced a sense of inertia at the heart of the government. Senior Conservatives warn that the combination of a “zombie” government delaying decisions until Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak become prime minister on September 6, and vitriol between rivals, is causing irreparable damage.
In a normal summer, with Parliament in recess and many Britons away on holiday, a policy vacuum would be unlikely to cause alarm.
But times are not normal, with the economy battered by the pandemic, the fallout from Brexit and Russia’s war in Ukraine fueling inflation and leaving Britons facing an unprecedented blow to living standards.
The bad news is starting to pile up. First the Bank of England said that inflation would exceed 13% and predicted that the UK would suffer a recession lasting more than a year. Then came a prediction that average household energy bills would top £5,000 ($6,060) next year, and powerful consumer finance commentator Martin Lewis warned of a “potential national financial disaster”.
“The scale of what’s coming down the road doesn’t seem to have been captured in the Conservative Party contest,” said Ben Houchen, the Tory mayor of Tees Valley and a key figure in the party’s bid to keep northern England in the red. wall’ which he took from Labor in the 2019 election. “We are literally a zombie government and there is a lot of nervousness in the red wall communities and across the country about what they see as a black hole in terms of action.”
Along with other senior Conservatives, including ministers and government officials, Houchen is concerned that the toxic leadership row and inaction on the cost of living are reinforcing the narrative that the party is out of touch with reality.
In many ways, the problem stems from how Johnson’s downfall unfolded. Instead of stepping down immediately with a formal service adviser installed, the prime minister is staying on until a successor is appointed – but has agreed that his government will not make any major budget decisions.
At the time, Johnson’s critics saw this as an acceptable compromise that would prevent the government from doing something controversial that the next prime minister would be forced to do or reject. But one minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed his frustration that it effectively tied the government’s hands in dealing with the cost of living crisis.
Johnson’s own approach to this interim period did not help. His absence from the public eye, including a long-delayed honeymoon, has been so noticeable that just his appearance at a meeting with energy companies on Thursday made at least one newspaper front page – along with the fact that no deal was reached on how to reduce ever-increasing household bills;
According to a government official, Johnson is not the only one absent from work. Several civil service permanent secretaries – senior government officials – were on holiday when some of the ominous economic forecasts came down, the person said, adding that parts of Britain’s bureaucracy suffered a collective meltdown similar to the first weeks of March 2020 , when the cases of Covid-19 were increasing.
Defending the government
On Friday, Finance Minister Nadhim Zahawi insisted his finance ministry was working on options for the incoming prime minister to tackle the cost of living crisis, telling Sky News the new leader would be able to “hit the ground running”.
But that is still weeks away, and there is growing concern about how much damage Truss and Sunak’s campaigns can do in the meantime. Even former minister Penny Mordaud, who was kicked out of the leadership contest and is now backing Truss, said both sides needed to stop what she described as “disparaging” blue-on-blue attacks.
According to Penny Mordaunt, a former minister who supports Truss, “The most important thing is that the new government tells people how it will help them with the cost of living, especially with debt servicing, fuel and energy bills. The clear communication needed to reassure will not be helped by the disparaging comments made during this showdown.Those who are tempted to resort to this need to step out of the competition bubble and start thinking about the public we serve and the future”.
A senior Truss-supporting minister accused Sunak, the former chancellor whose resignation helped bring down Johnson, of running a kamikaze campaign that would destroy the Conservatives’ long-term brand if he loses, as the polls predict.
Dominic Raab, who backs Sunak, said Truss’ plan for immediate tax cuts would be an “electoral suicide note”, while Sunak’s campaign promoted an attack website suggesting the foreign secretary’s economic approach was a “serious moral and political misjudgment”.
In turn, the Truss campaign accused Mr Sunack of pursuing “socialist tax and spend” and likened his plan to the policies of former Labor prime minister Gordon Brown. In their bid to win the leadership debate on economic policy, both candidates have blasted elements of Conservative policy over the last 12 years in office.
The animosity between the two camps is so great that Trump’s allies are urging her to exclude Sunak, Raab and other vocal critics from her cabinet if she wins. Truss should only offer Sunak a junior role that she is unlikely to accept, thereby encouraging her to leave politics, a prominent supporter of hers said. Despite this, Sunak said he would serve a Truss government in any capacity.
The Truss-backed minister said the contest had become too long and drawn out to the point where no Tory was benefiting. Another Truss-supporting MP accused Sunak’s campaign of desperation and called on his colleagues to stop publicly attacking each other on the media rounds.
Yet another Truss supporter said there were mistakes on both sides, arguing that Sunak’s campaign was doing terrible damage to the party, but that Nadine Dorris, a vocal critic of Sunak, was also wrong to share a picture of him presents as a backstabber for his part in Johnson’s downfall.
Truss went from anti-Thatcher protests to become UK Tory darling
“Everyone involved in this leadership campaign must remember that at the end of this campaign we must come together,” said Andrew Bowie, a Scottish Conservative MP and Sunak supporter. “The enemy we are fighting is Keir Starmer’s Labor Party and Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party and we must stop giving them attack lines.”
To be sure, there are politicians in Starmer’s party who believe Labor is gone on the cost of living crisis too. But with the government’s approval rating languishing at around 20%, according to YouGov, there is also an argument for the opposition parties to sit back and let the Conservatives attack each other.
Meanwhile, Houchen – who supports Sunak – is calling on the new prime minister to put the government on cost-of-living war gear, with daily pandemic-style press conferences and a massive economic package comparable to the licensing program to stave off bankruptcy of the households.
“The danger is that there will be weeks before that where all people will see is that the government is unable to get its act together,” he said. “In the outside world, people are asking what debate the Conservatives are having, because this is not the debate they want to have about the cost of living.”
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