The U.K. Is Caught in a Leadership Crisis at the Worst Possible Time
British prime minister Boris Johnson announced his resignation on July 7 after more than 50 government officials resigned in the wake of ethics scandals, effectively leaving him unable to govern. But while Johnson is deeply unpopular with the British public, the crisis unfolding at the top seat of power in the U.K. comes at a bad time for the country. The U.K.’s next leader will face an unenviable task—having to address record-high inflation and a related cost of living crisis while fulfilling commitments to support Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.
And the leadership crisis is set to last weeks as the Conservative party begins an internal voting process now involving six candidates, with the winner to be announced on September 5.
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Here, what the leadership crisis means for the U.K. and beyond:
The U.K.’s economic crisis
Johnson’s two-and-a-half-year premiership has been dominated by the pandemic, Brexit, and increasingly the war in Ukraine—all of which have had a major impact on the U.K. economy. Inflation is among the highest of the wealthy G7 nations, and alongside stagnant wages this has led to a once-in-a-generation economic crunch.
As 7 million households struggled to heat their homes or put food on the table, according to anti-poverty charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Johnson’s government has been criticized for its slow and changing response. It took three months of intense political pressure before finance minister Rishi Sunak unveiled an economic support package for low-income households, in response to household energy bills increasing by 54% in April. While this will ease the burden on the public in the short term, explains Daniel Tomlinson, senior economist at British think tank the Resolution Foundation, it is in no way a long-lasting solution.
The new prime minister will be forced to address the crisis as soon as they enter office—energy prices are set to rise again in October once an energy price cap is lifted again, and experts predict that inflation will climb even higher to 11%. However, experts tell TIME that almost all of the candidates running to replace Johnson are largely avoiding the cost-of-living crisis in their campaigns, instead aligning themselves with small-state, conservative values and pledging to lower taxes.
“It’s essentially fantasy politics,” says Robert Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester. “It makes sense from the perspective of getting themselves elected leader of the Conservative party, but it is going to be a disastrous and crushing collision with economic and fiscal reality.”
The new prime minister will be faced with two choices, Ford explains: to backtrack on promises made in their leadership campaign, which could anger Conservative lawmakers; or abandon lower-income voters by failing to ease the squeeze on the cost of living, which could lose them the next general election in late 2024 or early 2025.
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When Johnson rode to victory in the 2019 election with the largest Conservative majority in decades, he did so with the support of many traditional Labour-voting Brits who trusted that he would, as his campaign slogan promised, “get Brexit done” and “level up” poorer regions of the country. Now that the U.K. has left the E.U., Brexit “pales in comparison” to the situation impacting household finances, says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London. If a future leader cuts taxes, it will have a knock-on effect on public services by limiting the amount of state funds available to those services, including the already struggling national health service, which is “not what these new voters voted for,” Bale adds.
Although the U.K. is not the only country struggling financially—a worldwide disruption of energy supplies, brought on in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—has pushed oil and gas prices up to unprecedented levels and triggered the record inflation seen in many parts of the globe.
But over a decade of austerity measures, including cuts to public spending and chronic underinvestment in Britain ahead of today’s crises, have particularly hampered the nation’s productivity, says Tomlinson. “Over the past 15 years, we haven’t really had an economic strategy. It’s been undone by the financial crisis and then Brexit,” he says.
In this environment, tax cuts would make it harder to invest in the country’s future and so would exacerbate the situation, Tomlinson adds. “What we have to hope comes out of the Tory leadership race is not wishful thinking but actually some serious, hard-headed grappling with trade-offs and priorities that might find a route for the country becoming richer again.”
But many of the candidates, including Penny Mordaunt and Suella Braverman, are campaigning to wage a “war on woke,” as Bale puts it, with promises to oppose transgender rights if elected. While this may appeal to some socially conservative voters, for most people, “it’s a distraction, especially when many people are having trouble putting food on the table,” Bale says.
Some 7.3 million British adults and 2.6 million children experienced food poverty in the U.K. in April, according to British charity The Food Foundation.
Many Britons’ patience with the current economic situation appears to be wearing thin. Last month, nationwide strikes by public transport workers over cuts to jobs, pay, and pensions halted 80% of trains on the worst affected days. A slew of strikes in other professions, such as teaching and healthcare, are expected over the summer, leading some commentators to draw comparisons with the country’s labor unrest of the late 1970s.
The war in Ukraine
Analysts tell TIME that one of Johnson’s few successful policies during his premiership was his ardent support of Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression—even when some critics accused him of using it to distract from the “partygate” scandal over a series of illegal gatherings at 10 Downing Street that broke COVID-19 lockdown rules. The U.K. has sent £2.3 billion ($2.8 billion) in military aid to Ukraine, including heavy weaponry and training for up to 10,000 Ukrainian troops, second only to the United States.
Johnson has visited President Volodymyr Zelensky twice in Kyiv since the invasion and addressed the Ukrainian parliament remotely. “I think that the Ukrainians have shown the courage of a lion, and you Volodymyr have given the roar of that lion,” he said during the first trip in April.
“Prime Minister Boris Johnson has always been and remains a true friend of Ukraine,” Dmytro Kuleba, foreign affairs minister of Ukraine, told TIME in a statement. “He was among the first world leaders who not only unequivocally condemned Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, but also took a number of crucial decisions to help Ukraine defend itself and ultimately win this war in the future. We will always remember his visit to Ukraine in the still dark hour of April.”
Ed Arnold, a research fellow for European security at the British military think-tank RUSI, says that a change in leadership doesn’t necessarily mean an end to Johnson’s Ukraine policy. Arnold says that the ministry of defense’s strategy predated Johnson’s premiership, and has been spearheaded in parliament by Conservative lawmaker Ben Wallace, who had “a more hardened view of the Russian threat” before war broke out. Johnson, to some extent, saw it as “politically advantageous” to ramp up the military support that was already in place, Arnold says.
Johnson’s successor will likely continue with the same approach, Ford says, given the policy’s popularity. A week before his resignation speech, Johnson pledged to increase Britain’s military spending from 2.1% to 2.5% of GDP, surpassing the NATO target of 2%.
The short-term financial expense of backing Ukraine will lead to an inevitable “trade-off,” Arnold says. “The new leader is going to have to be very honest with the public in explaining why we need to spend more money on defense at a time when inflationary pressures, cost of living crisis, and recovery from the COVID pandemic are going to be challenging.”
A tainted legacy
While many Conservative lawmakers may hope that Johnson’s departure will put his scandal-laden premiership to bed, analysts tell TIME that the legacy of it could haunt the party and its new leader. The fallout from “partygate” has angered many Brits.
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The timing of Johnson’s resignation could also erode trust in government institutions. On the one hand, Johnson’s departure indicates some degree of accountability for a prime minister that was found to break the law—a first for a sitting prime minister—over the illegal lockdown parties. A May poll by The New Statesman showed that 62% of Brits think that the government ignores rules and procedures, a far higher figure than elsewhere in western Europe.
On the other hand, that a lack of confidence in Johnson has resulted in some 200,000 Conservative party members selecting the next prime minister, instead of fresh elections during a period of crises, has rankled some. Bale, who has authored a book on political party membership, notes that card-carrying Conservatives are not representative of the wider electorate. “They’re older, they’re whiter, and they’re much better off than the general population, and there are many who are uncomfortable with social change.”
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