With the skill and diligence of a circular firing squad, Britain’s Conservative members of Parliament are thinning the ranks of contenders to replace Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Last week they reduced the field from eight to five in two rounds of voting. By the end of this week, two will still be standing. The finalists will then face the party membership, who will elect a new leader in early September. One finalist will almost certainly be Rishi Sunak, Mr. Johnson’s ex-finance minister. The other will likely be Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt or perhaps Foreign Secretary Liz Truss or former Equality Minister Kemi Badenoch, who is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants and would be Britain’s first black prime minister.
The Labor Party should fear only one Conservative at election time: Boris Johnson. A week and a half ago his own ministers stabbed him in the front. Even in good times, it would have been risky to fire the prime minister who delivered Brexit and the biggest majority since 1987. These aren’t good times. Inflation threatens to hit double figures, the economy is sliding into recession, energy prices are rocketing, the opposition is ahead in the polls and Britain is committed to an open-ended proxy war in Ukraine.
The outlook is little better for the US or any other liberal democracy. In June French parliamentary elections left President Emmanuel Macron struggling to form a coalition. Last week Italy’s coalition collapsed. The caretaker prime minister, Mario Draghi, offered his resignation, only for the president to refuse to accept it. In the US, President Biden’s poll ratings plumb the depths. Not since the 1930s have liberal democratic governments seemed so powerless, so short on ideas, so distant from their voters.
In Britain, the Conservatives have been in power since 2010, so when their would-be leaders promise brave new policies, they implicitly repudiate their old policies. Not that they have any new policies. Instead, all candidates ritually invoke Margaret Thatcher, with much the same cynicism as Republican invocations of Ronald Reagan. The Conservatives are now a high-taxing, high-spending party of regulation, deficits and low growth with a quixotic commitment to a “net zero” green economy and, as Mr. Sunak and Ms. Mordaunt have recently shown, a fashionable inability to define a woman.
Conservative members of Parliament favor Mr. Sunak, who is campaigning on promises of a Thatcherite cure for his own policies. That’s not the only liability he carries. Mr. Sunak, whose parents were born in India, is an immigrant success story, and in some ways a victim of complications that arise from that success. While he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he secretly held a green card, making him an official resident of both the US and 11 Downing Street. He also told the British public to tighten their belts and pay higher taxes while his wife, an Indian billionaire’s daughter, avoided millions in British taxes by claiming non-domiciled status. (After that became public, she said she would pay UK taxes on her global income.)
Mr. Sunak promises to “make Brexit sing.” Voters, however, seem to prefer Ms. Mordaunt. She has no fixed ideology. In a party out of ideas and talent, that allows her to strike the centrist sweet spot. But given the state of the economy and the short odds of improvement before the next elections, which must be held by January 2025, she’s likely to strike it face-first.
Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson is out but not down. He will remain at 10 Downing Street until early September. In what should have been his resignation speech, he avoided the word “resign.” He spoke of “stepping down” in response to attacks from his fellow members of Parliament while insisting that he still had a “mandate” from the voters. This is a constitutional innovation. Unlike American or French presidents, British prime ministers aren’t elected directly to the office. The party’s membership selects a leader, but the parliamentary party—elected lawmakers—can overrule the membership and impose a prime minister who takes office without having won an election.
That’s what happened to Thatcher in 1990 and is now happening to Mr. Johnson. Will he continue to let it happen? Six weeks is a long time in politics, and possession is nine-tenths of the law. Mr. Johnson’s would-be successors will tear each other to pieces, making him look almost statesmanlike. When he does “step down,” it won’t be very far. If Mr. Sunak or Ms. Mordaunt fails to raise the Conservatives in the polls, where else can the party turn?
Mr. Green is a Journal contributor and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
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