Acton Institute Powerblog

After Boris: More of the same or a different direction?

(Image credit: Associated Press)

Of the two Conservative Party candidates poised to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister, neither seems particularly, or at least consistently, conservative. […]

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We’re down to the final two candidates: Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. The next prime minister of the United Kingdom with be either our third female premier (all Conservative) or the nation’s first ethnic Indian (and Hindu) leader.

Unlike the U.S. president, the British prime minister is not directly elected. The PM is whoever can command a majority in the House of Commons, usually the leader of the majority party. Consequently, when a party leader resigns, as Boris Johnson did on July 7, it’s the party that appoints a new leader, who is then invited to become prime minister. The media complain that the next PM will be chosen by a small, unrepresentative subgroup of the population, but this has happened with five leadership changes since 1945 (three changes of Conservative leadership and two of Labour leadership). There will be an election soon enough, however.

Among the many ironies in the defenestration of Boris Johnson that landed us in this situation is that, in economic terms at least, the man who helped bring him down, Rishi Sunak, represents the continuity candidate, while the one who remained loyal, Liz Truss, is promoting a more radical economic agenda. Truss was previously No. 2 at the treasury (though not to Sunak). She is currently foreign secretary (akin to the U.S. secretary of state). As Johnson’s government collapsed around him for failing to properly deal with inappropriate sexual behavior from a senior whip (simply the latest piece of chaotic handling of sensitive matters), Sunak resigned on the grounds of “enough is enough,” while Liz Truss remained in post.

As for the most pressing issues to be confronted by Sunak and Truss, the economy looms largest. The pressures of inflation, the tax burden, government debt, and, indeed, government spending affect the daily lives of ordinary people. What are the candidates proposing?

Rishi Sunak was the chancellor of the exchequer (the U.K. equivalent of treasury secretary) under Johnson. He’s credited with managing the extraordinary economic catastrophe ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic. He did so primarily by providing government subsidies for business and employment. In fairness, most people across the political spectrum accept that this was probably inevitable in the short term. Governments, though, even nominally conservative ones, become addicted to spending and debt, and this current government is no exception. The consequence of “pandemic economics” has been:

  • Significantly increased government spending
  • Increased taxation
  • High levels of sovereign debt
  • Inflation

None of which sounds particularly conservative.

The economic argument between the candidates seems to boil down to taxation. Unfortunately, the links between tax, spending, debt, and inflation are barely debated. The argument is thus reduced to one about extent and timing—jam today or jam tomorrow. This is a pity because it misses the opportunity for a conservative vision of a limited state.

Liz Truss wants tax cuts on Day 1 in office; Rishi Sunak, a year later at the earliest. That this lies at the center of the argument between them is faintly ridiculous. Truss wants the 1.25% National Insurance rise reversed (a tax on both income and jobs, payable by both employees and employers). This knee-jerk decision by Johnson to raise the tax was surely an error and a classic Boris ploy: throw money at the health and social care system and announce the problem solved. Such an approach rarely solves the difficulty.

Rishi Sunak is giving priority to dealing with inflation, understanding the central importance of sound money in achieving this objective. This is his strongest hand. Inflation is destructive: It arbitrarily redistributes wealth with a disproportionate impact on the poorest. Sunak’s problem is that he’s increased the tax burden to the highest level for 70 years and become rather addicted to adjustments to allowances and handouts. Much better to cut tax rates and allow individuals to make their own spending decisions rather than to subsidize particular expenditures. Sunak gets the inflation question but is rather light on economic specifics.

Truss is more openly pursuing supply-side reforms: advocating enterprise zones, both personal and corporate tax reductions, and greater control of the money supply. There is much here to commend. However, it is disappointing that Liz’s principal response to the problem of inflation is simply that it is forecast to reduce next year. Moreover, her approach to national debt is to increase it and then spread it over a longer time period, refusing to countenance any reduction in government expenditure. What we have with Liz are attractive policies but economic inconsistency. One almost certain consequence is increased interest rates (not necessarily a bad thing), but this has knock-on effects on the cost of government borrowing and hence necessitates cuts in government expenditure—which she will not countenance.

The debate is not only about economics. The Conservative government under Johnson was returned with a majority of 80 seats over all other parties combined. Perhaps the biggest criticism we can levy at Johnson is the squandering of the opportunity of this sizable parliamentary majority amid a cacophony of chaos and incompetence—and, of course, the lack of a conservative vision. The biggest fear is that the majority gained will be wasted (if it hasn’t been already). And so there remain for Sunak and Truss such questions as how would you go about holding on to the first-time voting Conservative districts, and what is your vision of conservatism for the future?

A further irony regarding the final two candidates is Brexit. Sunak voted to leave the EU, but voters don’t seem to think he meant it. Truss voted and campaigned for remain but now claims that was a mistake and has converted to leave. Remember, the Conservative Party membership will likely have been at least 2-to-1 in favor of leave. Both candidates advocate increased immigration control and increased defense spending (more so from Truss). One area of difference is that Truss is more skeptical about green levies and net zero greenhouse gas emissions than is Sunak.

A reasonable conclusion so far might be that Liz Truss offers a somewhat more detailed supply-side critique and response to the economy and promotion of enterprise, but not without contradictions. She’s a poor media and parliamentary performer. She’s wooden and often incoherent, inarticulate and monotone. We tried that before with Theresa May. It did not end well. A prime minister must be able to stand at a lectern and speak to the nation, deal with opponents in Parliament, engender confidence in the electorate, and campaign. We swopped the rather hapless Mrs. May for Boris Johnson, the great performer, the entertainer, the storyteller, the communicator and … well, that also did not end well. Sunak is not Johnson, however; he’s more slick and polished (which may or may not be an advantage).

And which of the candidates will win in Hartlepool? In May 2021 there was a special election in a long-standing socialist electoral district, Hartlepool, a rather impoverished town on the northeast coast of England. The Conservatives won with 52% of the vote—up from 29%, the biggest swing toward an incumbent government since 1945. Boris succeeded in reaching parts of the electorate often closed to the Conservatives.

Rishi Sunak represents a constituency merely 30 miles to the south of Hartlepool, but it isn’t Hartlepool in any way. Instead, it’s a rural, wealthy, beautiful district in north Yorkshire. Sunak attended one of the most expensive private schools in southern England and married into one of the wealthiest business families in India. Prior to Parliament he worked for Goldman Sachs.

Liz Truss attended a state school in West Yorkshire and was brought up in a left-wing, socialist, academic family supporting nuclear disarmament. Even at university (Oxford, of course), she was president of the university Liberal Democrats (our smaller, radical-leftist third party). Seemingly, she underwent a conversion (although to “leave” only very recently).

So, what are we to make of all this? Perhaps a debate between the two candidates would be in order. The BBC (which comes second only to the NHS in terms of divinity) duly obliged. It was pretty awful. We learned little. Sunak came over somewhat hectoring and arrogant and lacked specifics. Truss was much more particular but lacked an overall argument.

Sunak was prescribing medicine; Truss was selling candy.

The most glaring omission in the debate: Neither candidate, not even once, linked the level of government expenditure to any of the problems we face. It became borrow more to fund tax cuts, or tax more to fund handouts and maybe some tax cuts later. The economic inconsistencies were startling.

Why is it that neither candidate seems capable of expounding a coherent, integrated vision of sound economics and small-state conservatism? Margaret Thatcher, like every prime minister, had strengths and weaknesses, but she caught a moment. Her advocacy of personal responsibility, lower taxation, lower borrowing, and less government expenditure (note the consistency of the vision) transformed British society in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Conservative majority gained in 2019 provided another such moment, a turning point in outlook and attitudes in the electorate. They did not vote Conservative for more tax and debt.

Rishi or Liz? As one commentator noted, the winner will be the candidate most eager to change Britain into a more conservative country.

Though it is a pity about the economic incoherence.

Richard Turnbull

Rev. Dr. Richard Turnbull is the director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics and a trustee of the Christian Institute. He holds a degree in Economics and Accounting and spent over eight years as a Chartered Accountant with Ernst and Young and served as the youngest ever member of the Press Council. Richard also holds a first class honours degree in Theology and PhD in Theology from the University of Durham. He was ordained into the ministry of the Church of England in 1994. Richard served in the pastoral ministry for over 10 years. He was also for 7 years the Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He has authored several books, is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a visiting Professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.