Fatigue has set in, it no longer hogs the headlines, and there is still one more week to go. The new leader of the Conservative party will be unveiled next Monday (September 5) at the end of an election process that many believe has gone on for too long. For six weeks, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have been holding forth, trying best to sound upbeat, taking on each other on policy issues in as many as 12 hustings across the country for the benefit of over 1.6 million members of the party, who get to decide the next leader and the new prime minister. Their lines on every occasion are almost the same: even Sunak now seems a bit sheepish as he regurgitates his by now familiar back story of immigration. The process trundles on, while bookies and opinion polls have long tipped Truss to win the election by a large margin.
Who among the two candidates did well and who faltered will be the focus of analysis for another day, but the country that the new prime minister will be in charge of from September 6 is already wracked by a series of crises making more headlines than the election. It is difficult to see who is not on strike, or is not striking in the near future: Royal Mail workers, barristers, personnel running trains and other transport systems, container port workers, telecom personnel, teachers, hospital staff, refuse and bin collectors in Scotland. The list is growing by the day and unions have threatened a 'wave of industrial action' in autumn. Add major worries over the ever-rising cost of living, impending recession, inflation shooting north, acute shortage of hospital staff and an exponential rise in energy prices from October, and you have an in-tray piled high for the next prime minister.
A major imponderable for the Conservative party is Truss or Sunak leading the party into the next general election in 2024. It is difficult to see at this stage either of them winning against a resurgent Labour party under Keir Starmer; besides, Boris Johnson remains hugely popular among party members. Electoral history is also against the Tories winning another election: they formed the government in 2010 (in coalition with Liberal Democrats), won outright in 2015 under David Cameron, formed a minority government under Theresa May after the 2017 election, and won a large majority under Johnson in 2019. The issue before the party is that neither Truss nor Sunak has the charisma that Johnson has; besides, despite the unsavoury reasons for Johnson’s resignation, he remains more popular than either of them within the party, as so many opinion polls have indicated. So watch out for Johnson batting on the front foot during the 2024 election.
The Truss and Sunak show presents a new episode of blue-on-blue attacks, but some interesting lines emerged during the election. Sunak revealed that he has been trying to get in touch with Johnson, but has not been able to speak to him since his resignation as chancellor. Johnson has not been taking Sunak’s calls, for understandable reasons. Many in Westminster believe that it was Sunak’s resignation that dealt the biggest blow to Johnson’s prime ministership, triggering the cascade of resignations by ministers that eventually led to Johnson announcing his decision to quit. The issue of trust, or lack of trust, is spoken in the same breath by Johnson’s allies when speaking of Sunak. It is also no secret that Johnson and his allies have been supporting the Truss campaign. Johnson not taking Sunak’s calls is perhaps part of the cut-and-thrust of politics, but many recall that it was Johnson who promoted Sunak from a junior minister to the top table as the chancellor of the exchequer.
Also creating a frisson was a leaked recording from the time Truss was chief secretary to the Treasury (until 2019), reigniting a debate whether British workers are ‘idlers’ and whether they need to work as hard as foreign workers to increase productivity. She is heard saying that British workers need “more graft”, suggesting that they lacked the “skill and application” of foreign workers. Her remarks echoed a controversial passage about British workers being among the “worst idlers in the world” in the book Britannia Unchained, which she co-authored in 2012, but when reminded of it, Truss said she did not write the chapter, saying: “Each author wrote a different chapter. Dominic Raab (deputy prime minister) wrote that chapter – he’s backing Rishi Sunak”. In the leaked recording, she says, “If you look at productivity, it’s very, very different in London from the rest of the country. But basically … this has been a historical fact for decades. Essentially it’s partly a mindset and attitude thing, I think. It’s working culture, basically. If you go to China it’s quite different, I can assure you”. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit opportunities minister, backed Truss’ comments.
The difference in work culture in Britain and elsewhere, particularly in China and the Indian sub-continent, is often the subject of conversation among foreign professionals or those with business interests in Britain. For example, Ratan Tata raised hackles in 2011 when he said in an interview to The Times: “It’s a work ethic issue. In my experience, in both Corus and JLR (Jaguar-Land Rover), nobody is willing to go the extra mile. I feel if you have come from Bombay for a meeting and the meeting goes on till 6pm, I would expect you won’t, at 5 o’clock, say, ‘sorry, I have a train to catch. I have to go home’. Friday, from 3.30pm, you can’t find anybody in their office”. In India, he said, “if you are in a crisis, if it means working to midnight, you do it. The worker in JLR seems to be willing to do that; the management is not.” He rowed back on the comments the next day, insisting the newspaper had misrepresented his views. The debate about work ethic in Britain continues, but it is clear that the next prime minister will have to work hard to deal with the many crises on several fronts. - The writer is senior journalist and researcher based in London
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