Third time lucky? The tragedy of UK politics

By Yoohyun Son

The socio-political climate in the UK has been turbulent, to say the least. On Tuesday 25 October, Rishi Sunak became Britain’s third prime minister in the space of two months. It is as though the public is spectating some kind of relay race, in which the baton is being passed from one successor to the next. From Boris Johnson to Liz Truss, the shortest-serving Prime Minister in the history of the United Kingdom, the baton has now fallen into the hands of Rishi Sunak. Will there – indeed, can there – be hope in Britain’s political landscape?

Following Boris Johnson’s exit as Prime Minister in July, in came Liz Truss. The announcement of the mini-budget was most probably the first of many disasters in her short stint in 10 Downing Street. Not only did the announcement of the mini-budget lead to immediate market turmoil, there were higher interest rates. When Jeremy Hunt was appointed as the new chancellor, he revealed that he was going to reverse “almost all” of the tax cuts announced in his predecessor’s mini-budget. Internal conflict within the party has showcased the sheer number of mistakes made during Truss’s premiership. Truss had promised to cancel the rise in national insurance and corporation tax in the Conservative leadership race over the summer. The bid to ease the economic issues was completely let down by the plans set out within the mini-budget. With aims to help tackle issues like rising energy bills, and income tax and corporation tax, she failed to recognise the severe consequences these would have on the lives of many. These two solutions are contradictory. Capping energy bills to benefit the least well-off, while also giving tax breaks to the richest and to corporations cannot go hand in hand. 

The mini-budget was a huge blow to Truss’s authority as the Prime Minister.  Her trust in Kwasi Kwarteng has been more than a hindrance to pleasing the public. Not only did she show herself to be fairly incompetent when it came to fiscal policy, U-turn after U-turn, she made herself look weak. Replacing her friend and political ally with the former health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has further highlighted her inability to lead the country. Jeremy Hunt took everything in a new direction. From then on, Truss was Prime Minister in name only.

Most notably, the government’s attempt to stimulate the economy through income tax cuts is deeply inefficient. This is certainly not the way forward in restarting the economy as it is a form of redistributing wealth upwards. The failure of ‘trickle-down’ economics in this instance shows that many economies are now seeing the benefits of large-scale state investment in infrastructure and skills. The government announced that the 45% rate of income tax for earnings over £150,000 would be abolished for England, Wales and Northern Ireland taxpayers. What the plan did not consider was how this would fuel further economic disparity between the rich and the poor. Although the government has since U-turned on the cut to the higher rate after backlash, what this has demonstrated to not only the British public but to the rest of the world, is the lack of stability in UK politics. The Liberation wrote “Since 23 June 2016, the Conservative party has been engaged in a high-powered exercise of self-destruction” and “[s]ix years on, the party’s record is lamentable”. Media coverage around UK politics has damaged its reputation around the world, although Liberation suggests that Britain was already on a downward trajectory after leaving the EU. 

Rishi Sunak emerged back into the race to become prime minister after Liz Truss called it quits. He is the youngest prime minister in modern times and the first British-Asian person to lead the country. His experience will hopefully stand him in good stead to competently manage the British state. As chancellor during Covid-19, he implemented innovative support measures. His “eat out to help out” scheme back in August 2020 as chancellor beat expectations with 10 million meals being eaten using the discounts during the first week of the scheme. He has been at the forefront of political change over recent years and thus, his first-hand experience and outlook to take control at a time of deep economic crisis could be a sign of hope. To bring the UK to a level of stability is of course necessary. However, with many ongoing issues at present, it looks as though it will not be easy for a quick turn of events. There are lingering doubts, which hang over his premiership. With recent announcements from the Bank of England, things are looking a lot worse than initially thought.  Post-Truss, the UK government needs to restore its credibility. The financial market is in a volatile state and was almost on the brink of recession under Truss’s premiership. The new prime minister and their Chancellor need to stabilise the economy to place it on the right path. 

At a time when we need our major governing institutions to work effectively together to secure a good outcome, there is turmoil and dissent among those organising our economy and tax system. The domino effect of changing out prime ministers and their plans has accumulated to the extent to which the UK has been embarrassed on an international stage. 

Now that a new year of 2023 has commenced, it is a new playing field for British politics. The Prime Minister already delivered pledges to halve inflation and bring down NHS waiting lists, as he set out a fresh vision for his premiership with five promises to voters. These measures need to be met urgently. As Britons struggle to keep up with immense pressures – from fluctuating prices and instability in the healthcare sector – it is only a matter of time until things turn even uglier than they already are. It seems as though the word ‘strike’ has been the word of the month for December 2022 and January 2023, with more strikes coming as 100,000 civil servants prepare to strike on 1 February. Strike after strike, it has become easier to blame those making it immediately and practically harder than those making it abstractly so. However, it is important not to lose sight of the original narrative – the government is at fault for these strikes across all public sectors. The NHS is one of the biggest challenges facing Mr Sunak’s government. More government action is needed to quickly resolve rising pressures on the healthcare sector. 

Financial instability brought in by Liz Truss and perpetuated by her cabinet’s poor judgements, Rishi Sunak could be the lucky third in stabilising the UK. There is hope that the new Prime Minister will be able to stabilise Britain’s political and economic climate. Having experienced the turbulence during Liz Truss’s premiership, it can only get better from here.

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