As the United Kingdom reels from economic storms, the two contenders to succeed Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader, and, hence, prime minister, Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), and Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, continue to slug it out.
Their visions are markedly different, and Conservative Party members must now decide Britain’s future direction. In the meantime, Johnson, who has just enjoyed his second overseas holiday in less than a month, is now a lame-duck prime minister, watching helplessly as the crisis unfolds.
On Aug 17, it was announced, after prices rose to their highest in 40 years, that the UK is suffering the worst inflation of any G7 country. Consumer prices rose 10.1 percent in the year to July, a higher rate than in the United States or the major eurozone countries. As a result, workers have suffered a 3 percent drop in real wages, the sharpest on record.
The cost-of-living crisis is also being stoked by spiraling energy bills, which are expected to reach 6,000 pounds ($7,100) a year for average households by early 2023, up from under 2,000 pounds, and threaten the survival of small businesses. The biggest fall in living standards since records began in 1963 is now forecast, and people are facing stark choices. They are having to choose between heating and eating this winter, and this is just the start.
The Office for National Statistics predicts that rampant inflation will push the economy into recession, and Darren Morgan, its director of statistics, says the value of real pay is “dropping faster than at any time since comparable records began in 2001”. Interest rates, moreover, are expected to double in the next six months, and this will aggravate the looming recession.
Although unemployment has remained low at 3.8 percent in the three months to June, there is a huge manpower shortage, and this imperils economic recovery. When the UK left the European Union in 2020, freedom of movement ended, and cheap labor from, in particular, Eastern Europe, ended. Demand is now exceeding supply for lorry drivers, agricultural workers, hotel staff and care-home workers, and the influx of Hong Kong BN(O) holders has not, as the government hoped, alleviated the situation. In desperation, the over-65s are now being offered attractive pay packages if they will rejoin the workforce.
In these circumstances, Rishi Sunak is providing an agenda based on a balanced budget, sound money and fiscal responsibility. Liz Truss, however, believes the path to power lies in appealing to her party’s basest instincts. As a master of “dog whistle” politics, she has, to the delight of party hard-liners, embraced confrontation, opening fire on anybody she can. Whereas her domestic agenda is a mishmash of anti-Bank of England, anti-trade union, and anti-Scottish National Party sentiment, her foreign policy is based on anti-China, anti-EU and anti-Russia bigotry. Whenever she wants cheap applause, she pushes one or other of these buttons.
As Sunak points out, instead of being frank, Truss is simply saying “things that people may want to hear”, which is “not leadership”
As the campaign drags on, however, people are learning more about Truss, and they do not like what they see. It has emerged that, when she was chief secretary to the Treasury (deputy finance minister) in Theresa May’s government, she claimed that British workers lacked the “skill and application” of their foreign rivals, and that they should show “more graft”, like the Chinese. In a leaked recording obtained by The Guardian, she said that there was “a fundamental issue of British working culture”, and that “if you go to China, it’s quite different”. This, of course, sheds light on why she wants to boost the ailing economy by encouraging Hong Kong people to relocate to the UK.
This, however, is by no means all. It has now been revealed that, in 2012, Truss co-wrote a book titled Britannia Unchained, in which there was another extraordinary slur on ordinary working people. British workers were described as being among the “worst idlers in the world”, which is hardly likely to endear her to working-class voters in the so-called “Red Wall” seats, which, thanks to Johnson, elected Conservative Party members of Parliament for the first time at the general election in 2019. Her fellow authors were three other members of parliament, including the current deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, a key backer of Rishi Sunak.
Once Truss realized how harmful the book was to her credibility, she sought to backpedal. She claimed last month that the offending chapter had not been written by her but by Raab, which fooled nobody. As Raab immediately pointed out, all the authors had taken “collective responsibility” for their book, meaning there was no way that Truss could wriggle off the hook.
As the campaign has unfolded, moreover, Truss has been as vague as possible about how she will tackle the cost-of-living crisis, and she only intends to reveal her full plans if elected leader. Not surprisingly, Sunak has called upon her to “come clean” on how she will help people to cope with their soaring energy bills, not least because this could well be a critical factor in the general election that must be held by 2024.
Although Truss has promised tax cuts, the former Conservative Party leader, Lord (Michael) Howard, has explained that the kind of tax cuts she is proposing will result in “a huge increase in borrowing, higher interest rates, a recession, and, inevitably, a Labour government”. This type of artificial stimulus will, by stoking inflation, worsen conditions for those on low incomes and pensioners, and Truss seems not to appreciate the scale of the crisis facing people this winter. As Sunak points out, instead of being frank, Truss is simply saying “things that people may want to hear”, which is “not leadership”.
The harsh truth is that Truss cannot be taken seriously, although there are sycophants aplenty applauding her every move in the hope of preferment. She has been a disastrous foreign secretary, with her tenure characterized by sound bites, missteps and gaffes. She has been not only narrow-minded, but also out of her depth, and Britain has lost out, most notably in the Far East. Instead of forging an independent foreign policy in the post-Brexit era and maximizing global opportunities, she has promoted confrontation at every opportunity, seeing the UK as little more than a US wingman. This, of course, was what the then-prime minister, Edward Heath, was desperate to avoid when he took the UK into what is now the EU in 1973, and he must now be turning in his grave.
Whatever his shortcomings, Sunak is at least a realist with a global vision, and is not afraid to say what needs to be said, even if it causes upset. He realizes that the economic crisis cannot be overcome until inflation and borrowing are controlled and interest rates are falling, and that the UK must forge trading links around the world. If elected, he will have a far greater chance than Truss of getting on top of the situation, and then projecting British influence in the way envisaged by the “Global Britain” strategy.
It beggars belief that a party once headed by titans like Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher is now facing the prospect of being led by someone like Truss. Were she to win, it would be a godsend for everyone who believes that complex problems have easy solutions, that Britain is now a US proxy, and that it is time to give the Labour Party a chance. The Conservative Party’s members will hopefully wise up before it is too late.
The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS