Shortcuts / 08 September 2022

The UK’s new prime minister

It’s been a bit of a ride in recent months when it comes to politics in the United Kingdom. The nation’s new prime minister – former Foreign Secretary Liz Truss – was sworn in this week, so in this Squiz Shortcut, we get across why there’s been a leadership change in the UK, who Liz Truss is, and the biggest challenges she’s facing at home and abroad.

So the UK has a new leader…
It does, and it might seem a little strange from afar because there wasn’t an election and an actual leadership challenge like the kind we’ve become well-acquainted with in Oz.

What happened to Boris Johnson?
The now-former PM announced his intention to resign about 2 months ago after 50 of his Conservative Party MPs said they couldn’t support him anymore. He had a pretty long list of scandals following him – and his colleagues eventually said enough was enough.

Remind me about the scandals…
So right in the middle of the nation’s really strict COVID lockdowns back in 2020, Johnson broke the rules multiple times when he both hosted and attended parties in official Government offices.

And many Brits were cranky about that?
They sure were – and police actually fined him for that behaviour. That was a first for a sitting UK PM but the immediate trigger for him standing down was actually a sexual abuse scandal involving one of his MPs – Chris Pincher was forced to resign over groping allegations.

Pincher? Surely you’re joking…
We promise we didn’t make that up… Johnson said he didn’t know about Pincher’s history of similar allegations before he appointed him to a senior role – but it then emerged he was actually briefed on the matter.

So if this all happened a couple of months ago, why is there only a new PM now?
Well, the process of appointing a new leader in the Conservative Party is quite laborious… First up, all 357 Conservative MPs in the parliament had to narrow down the field of possible replacements. In the end, 8 MPs were nominated and then there were a series of secret ballots in the party room. The candidate with the lowest number of votes was knocked out each round until the nominees were whittled down to just 2.

And who were they?
That would be Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Truss is the former Foreign Secretary and Rishi Sunak is the former Chancellor, or what we in Oz would call a Treasurer.

Gotcha. So what happened after they were the only ones left standing?
The final decision came down to a vote by the broader Conservative Party membership of about 170,000 people, which tends to skew male, white, older and wealthier compared to the general population. So for more than a month Truss and Sunak did the rounds of TV debates, speeches and promise-making, and Truss won the vote.

What was Johnson doing throughout all of this?
He was still PM – though he had promised not to make new policies or big changes of direction during that period of limbo. But he did have a lavish COVID-delayed wedding reception with his wife Carrie in the English countryside and an extended honeymoon in Slovenia and Greece.

Sounds nice… So what’s Truss’ story?
She’s already made quite a name for herself on the world stage as the UK’s Foreign Secretary, but she’s not really a household name in Oz. She is 47yo and she says her household was pretty left-wing growing up – her mum was a nurse and her dad was a maths professor.

So what changed?
Well by the time she got to Oxford Uni – studying economics and politics – she found herself moving towards the Conservative side.

How did she get into parliament?
So she’s an accountant by trade but was always determined to get into Westminster – she had a number of attempts before she was successful in 2010.

And then she rose up through the ranks?
Yep – she was promoted by 3 British PMs over that time: David Cameron, Teresa May, and then Boris Johnson made her Foreign Secretary last year. And it’s worth noting she was a Johnson loyalist until the end, even when so many in his party had deserted him.

Like Rishi Sunak?
That’s right – when he resigned from Johnson’s Cabinet, so many others followed him. He was an early favourite in the leadership contest but he couldn’t win over the party’s conservative base. But Sunak is only 42yo, Oxford and Standford educated, and a Goldman Sachs alumnus, so we probably haven’t heard the last from him.

Enough about the runner-up… What’s ahead for PM Truss?
Her in-tray is pretty daunting… Starting on the domestic front, the UK like much of the world is really battling cost of living issues. So while inflation is sitting at about 6% here in Oz, it’s 10% in the UK.

That’s a lot…
Yep, and it’s mostly due to energy costs. The average household bill in the UK has nearly doubled over the past year and that’s got a lot to do with the war in Ukraine and the struggle to find substitutes for Russian gas.

What’s been done to address that so far?
The Government has already given households a one-off payment to help, but charities are saying it’s not nearly enough. And because this is all going to get worse as the nation heads into its winter, there’s an expectation the new PM will unveil a broader rescue package and lock in ways to secure the UK’s gas supply.

Any other big issues on the agenda?
So like in Oz, there’s been a fair bit of strike action around the UK lately. Union leaders covering workers across a whole range of sectors aren’t happy with pay rises being offered, especially with inflation running so hot. For her part, Truss has said she won’t let the unions hold the public to ransom, so we’ll have to see how that plays out.

What about Brexit?
It’s all still a bit of mess and it’s still debatable how it’s working out for England. You might remember that before he entered Parliament, Johnson was one of the loudest voices calling for the UK to leave the European Union – and then once he became PM, the deal was done on his watch.

What’s Truss’ position on the matter?
She initially campaigned fiercely for Britain to remain in the EU but she’s now a strident backer of Brexit. Her dealings with that have created a whole lot of friction with European leaders.

Such as?
Well, one of the biggest issues for the new PM on the matter is around Northern Ireland. It’s still part of the UK and the Republic of Ireland is a separate country still in the EU – so there are all sorts of dramas when it comes to trade and the movement of people under a bunch of complicated Brexit rules.

What’s the core of the issue?
So Truss has threatened to tear up agreements with the EU that the UK had signed as part of those Brexit negotiations. She says the EU’s rules are further dividing Ireland when peace is already so fragile there – but her proposed solution is not winning her many friends around the world.

And the solution is…
Truss has proposed new legislation looking to overturn parts of the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol which spell out the customs and border rules on goods moving in and out. That’s even seen politicians in the US speak out against it because they think the UK is undermining international law.

Right. So does she have any world leaders on her side?
She’s actually pretty popular in Ukraine – a phone call to President Volodymyr Zelensky was first on her whip around of world leaders when she got the top job. As Foreign Secretary, she was very vocal in speaking up for Ukraine and organising defence and diplomatic support.

Does the change in leadership mean anything for Oz?
Not really. One of the big things between us and the UK is the AUKUS agreement. That’s the security pact Australia signed with the UK and the US last year, and Truss was a big part of those negotiations. One of the key items in that is an agreement to build nuclear submarines.

Which I recall made France pretty cranky…
That’s right – because we had initially agreed to buy subs off them, but the growing Chinese threat in the Indo-Pacific region saw Australia rethink that deal. And just last week Johnson made a point of meeting our deputy PM Richard Marles over in London, saying the Oz-UK relationship is more important than ever.

So will Truss be picking up where Johnson left off?
Yep, and we’ll keep you across all the big developments.

Squiz recommends:

The Liz Truss Foreign Secretary One – Political Thinking with Nick Robinson podcast

Liz Truss’ dance moves

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