The U.K. will have 5 prime ministers in just 6 years. What’s gone wrong?
LONDON — The United Kingdom used to be synonymous with stable, dependable, if sometimes dull, governance. But the resignation Thursday of Prime Minister Liz Truss — after six weeks in office — shows just how chaotic British politics has become in recent years.
Truss is the fourth prime minister to resign since the Brexit vote of 2016. That’s the fastest turnover in a century. No. 10 Downing Street has effectively become a revolving door.
What’s the matter with Britain? Analysts here say it is a story of polarization, populism, a flawed political system and poor leadership that has at times put party and personal ambition above the good of the country.
A miscalculation of historic proportions
It begins with former Prime Minister David Cameron who called a referendum on leaving the European Union. Cameron hoped the vote in 2016 would end a civil war inside his own Conservative Party on Britain’s relationship with Europe and keep the party in power.
It was a miscalculation of historic proportions. The British people voted to leave the EU by a small, but convincing margin. The result not only highlighted Britain’s bitter divisions, but also changed the course of the country’s foreign, economic and trade policies. Most political scientists and economists predicted that leaving the EU would make this island nation poorer and politically less relevant.
It immediately became clear that the architects of the Brexit vote, including its most effective campaigner, Boris Johnson, had no real plan for untangling decades of economic and legal ties with the EU. Political chaos followed.
Cameron resigned after the referendum and Theresa May became prime minister. In another major miscalculation, she called a snap election in 2017, only to lose her party’s control of the House of Commons.
May repeatedly tried to drive a Brexit deal through parliament, only to be foiled in part by the anti-European wing of her own party which wanted a clean divorce from Europe. Brexit eventually brought May down as it had her predecessor.
The party then turned to Johnson, the charismatic if deeply flawed showman who had a track record of winning elections. He campaigned to “get Brexit done.” Johnson led the party to a landslide victory in 2019. The next year, he completed the U.K.’s departure from the EU and seemed poised to rule for years.
The fantasy: Scandinavian welfare at American tax levels
Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which Johnson underplayed, until he ended up in an intensive care unit with the virus. His government’s slow response to COVID led to more than 200,000 deaths — the highest toll in Europe — and drew heavy criticism. But what ended Johnson’s premiership was his lying.
While Johnson’s government ruled out social gatherings to limit the spread of Covid, government staff held parties. Meanwhile, most Britons stuck to the rules, even if it meant not saying goodbye to dying loved ones. Johnson insisted his government had adhered to lockdown regulations. In fact, it turned out he had attended two events. He was forced to apologize and pay a fine. Politically, Johnson was finished.
Truss replaced Johnson in September, promising to kick-start the economy with tax cuts for corporations and the rich without reducing public spending. Amid 10% inflation here and rising energy prices because of the war in Ukraine, Truss’ plan spooked financial markets, crashed the pound and sent mortgage rates soaring.
Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London, says one reason Tory prime ministers such as Johnson and Truss have flamed out is because they promised the public things they can’t deliver. In the case of Johnson, it was a cost- and trouble-free Brexit; and with Truss, unfunded tax cuts.
“It’s a fantasy that many Brits are willing to believe, that because of our supposedly glorious past, we’re also entitled to an equally glorious present or future,” says Bale, whose new book, The Conservative Party After Brexit, comes out in March. “I think politicians continue to feed the myth that we can have Scandinavian levels of welfare on American levels of taxation.”
Patrick Dunleavy, emeritus professor of political science and public policy at the London School of Economics, says flaws in the U.K.’s system of government and the way the Conservative Party chooses its leaders have also contributed to the ongoing turmoil. For instance, prime ministers can freely appoint people to very important jobs without parliamentary oversight as you have, say, with Senate confirmation hearings in the U.S. Dunleavy says that permitted Truss to appoint Kwasi Kwarteng, a little-known political ally, to be chancellor of the Exchequer, Britain’s treasury secretary. Truss fired Kwarteng on Friday after their shared economic plan wreaked havoc with financial markets.
Dunleavy says another problem is party leadership is decided not by parliamentarians, but party members, who — in the case of the Tories — tend to be whiter, older and more conservative than the rest of the British population.
“They are not very well-informed or critical as an electorate,” says Dunleavy. “So, they’ve chosen badly, really, with Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.”
NPR London producer Morgan Ayre contributed to this story.