BBoris Johnson, the british prime minister, announced his resignation July 7. This was after over 50 former government officials left in the wake ethics scandals. He is now effectively unable to govern. Johnson’s disapproval is not surprising, as the U.K. faces a crisis at its top. 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.
This leadership crisis could last for several weeks. Now, the Conservative party has begun an internal vote process that involves six candidates. A winner will be announced in September.
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Let’s look at what this leadership crisis means to the U.K.
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. Along with stagnant wages, inflation is the largest of wealthy G7 nation and has created an unprecedented 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. After three months of pressure from the political world, Rishi Sunak, finance minister, presented an economic package to help low-income households in response to rising household energy costs by 54%. Although this may reduce the public’s burden in the short-term, says Daniel Tomlinson of the Resolution Foundation senior economist, it will not be a 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%. Experts tell TIME, however, that most of the candidates to succeed Johnson have avoided the cost-of living crisis by pledging lower taxes and aligning with conservative small-state values.
“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.”
Ford says that the new prime minister has two options. One is to renege on their campaign promises, which may anger Conservative legislators. Two are to abandon low-income voters and not ease the pressure on living costs, which could cost them the general election of 2024/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.
According to The Food Foundation, 7.3 million British children and 2.6 millions adults were affected by food insecurity in April.
Many Britons’ patience with the current economic situation appears to be wearing thin. Last month saw nationwide strikes of public transport workers against cuts to pay, jobs, and pensions. 80% stopped trains from 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.
Ukraine: The War
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 visited Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv twice since the invasion, and he addressed the Ukrainian parliament via remote. “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.”
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. An April poll by The New StatesmanIt was found that 62% Brits believe that the government disregards rules and procedure, which is a much higher percentage than in other parts of western Europe.
Some are not happy that Johnson’s lack of trust has led to some 200,000 Conservative Party members choosing the next Prime Minister, rather than fresh elections in a time of crisis. Bale has written a book about political party membership. He notes that the card-carrying Conservatives do not represent the larger 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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