Back to square one at No 10

Johnson has a proven record of the huge win in 2019. Sunak may be a better candidate now to deal with the economic crises, but does he have the appeal to win a general election?

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Published: Sun 23 Oct 2022, 9:13 PM

Perception is reality in politics, which reinforces the dictum that words have power; how reality is conveyed matters. A compilation of most used words to describe British politics last week in the form of ‘word cloud’ is revealing; one cloud comprising words most used by journalists and another highlighting those used by voters. Three words dominate the first set: ‘febrile’, ‘historic’ and ‘extraordinary’, with ‘lockstep’ following close behind. Journalists, political pundits and several MPs seemed to read from the same script as they remarked to anyone who was still listening: “I’ve never seen anything like it”, or “I’ve been covering politics for over two decades, not seen anything like it”. The other cloud produced by PeoplePolling, a public opinion consultancy, highlights several words with asterisks that are unprintable, the most charitable being ‘chaos’, ‘shambles’, ‘mess’ and ‘inept’. According to the popular cliché, a week is a long time in politics, but last week even a day seemed too long, such was the pace of developments.

As British expats across the world despair at the events in Westminster village, there is an outpouring of memes on social media and angst at home: over the instability, over the idea that a prime minister ousted by the Conservative party just few weeks ago could actually return to Downing Street, over the political jostling marginalising the real issues of concern to the public: ever rising cost of living, energy crisis, long NHS waiting lists, higher mortgage costs.

In an excoriating response to the events, Paul Goodman, editor of ConservativeHome, a blog that supports the Conservative party, writes: “The thought occurs that maybe the Conservative Party no longer cares. Perhaps the sum of its ambition is to become the provisional wing of the right-wing entertainment industry: happy to preach to a diminishing band of true believers, and good for a newspaper column or fringe TV turn, while (Labour leader) Keir Starmer gets on with the tiresome business of actually running the country…The Germans have a word for it: Totentanz – a dance of death”.

Political stability was once the United Kingdom’s strongest suit, which underpinned the major G7 economy, not any more. European leaders and media are bewildered at the happenings in London, some blame it all to Brexit. Le Monde in France wondered: “What happened to British politics, to its reputation of stability and moderation, its venerable parliament, buffeted by accelerated convulsions since Brexit?”

As the events unfolded last week, scribes checked archives to conclude that Liz Truss has had the shortest tenure of any prime minister in Downing Street, of 44 days, while similar records were attributed to the tenures of her chancellor (Kwasi Kwarteng) and home secretary (Suella Braverman). The palace of Westminster, the seat of the ‘mother of all parliaments’, saw unprecedented scenes: allegations of MPs being manhandled, some MPs on the verge of tears

at the meltdown of the Conservative government, and Truss being dubbed by her senior party colleague, former chancellor George Osborne, as ‘PINO’: prime minister in name only.

All of which led to another vacancy at the top of the British government: it is back to square one.

Just weeks ago, Truss had won the prolonged Conservative leadership election that tested the patience of many, but the country is now again debating the same set of individuals: Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt, Suella Braverman. By Friday (October 28), the UK will get its third prime minister in 2022 and fifth since the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. The election process has now been fast-tracked, and if only one candidate achieves the threshold of being nominated by 100 MPs by 2pm on Monday, when nominations close, he or she will be declared the winner: the next leader of the Conservative party and the prime minister. The party has 357 MPs, so theoretically three candidates could be on the ballot paper. In that case, the number will be reduced to two by a vote by MPs, and the last two will be presented before over 160,000 party members, who will vote online, and the result announced on Friday.

The drumbeat around candidates is no less remarkable: Penny Mordaunt is dubbed as the only one who can unite the divided party; only Boris Johnson could lead the party to another win at the 2024 election; that only Rishi Sunak has the competence and economic gravitas to see the country through the multiple crises it faces – never mind they were all complicit in the events that led to the current situation. A large number of Tory MPs are said to have resigned to either not contesting the next election or sitting in the opposition, whoever becomes the next party leader and prime minister.

The reality is that the Conservative party is now deeply divided: there are MPs who want Boris Johnson back, others say they will quit if he returns. There is also the question of who can lead the party to win the next general election: here, Johnson has a proven record of the huge win in 2019. Sunak may be a better candidate now to deal with the economic crises, but does he have the appeal to win a general election? The drumbeat already suggests that a ‘stop-Rishi’ campaign is on again. The wider context is that recent opinion polls consistently suggest that Labour will win the next election: so whoever becomes the next prime minister, it is likely to be a short tenure which, anyway, will be focussed on dealing with economic, energy and other crises.

Across the aisle, Labour party cannot believe its luck. Struggling to recover from the Jeremy Corbyn era, Starmer faced several challenges within the party, but is now increasingly seen as the clear choice to take over. The next election needs to be completed by January 2025, but there is already a clamour for mid-term elections to settle the political instability. But under rules an election can only be called under two situations: if the ruling party loses a confidence vote in the House of Commons or the prime minister meets the monarch and recommends dissolution – neither is likely in the present circumstances, so expect more high-voltage politics from Westminster in the coming days, months and years.

- The writer is a senior journalist based in London

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