Britain finally learns who its next prime minister will be on Monday after two months of political uncertainty during which energy prices skyrocketed and tens of thousands of workers went on strike.
The governing Conservative Party plans to announce whether Foreign Secretary Liz Truss or former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak won the most votes from party members to succeed Boris Johnson as party leader and thus prime minister.
Whoever emerges victorious will inherit an economy heading into a potentially lengthy recession and will need to jump straight into tackling the cost-of-living crisis walloping the U.K.
Thanks to global gas price volatility triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the average U.K. household energy bill is jumping to more than 3,500 pounds ($4,000) a year — almost triple the level a year ago. Inflation is above 10% for the first time since the 1980s. The government is facing increasingly urgent calls to deliver financial support to help millions pay for essential heating and electricity to get through the winter.
The opposition Labour Party and other critics accuse the government of being “missing in action” during a summer of discontent that saw tens of thousands of rail staff, port and postal workers, lawyers and garbage collectors go on strike to demand better pay to keep up with spiralling costs.
Truss, widely regarded as the front-runner in the leadership race, has won the support of many Conservatives with her Thatcherite zeal to roll back state intervention and slash taxes. She has promised to act “immediately” to tackle soaring energy bills, but declined to give any details.
Sunak, who sought to paint himself as the more realistic economist, said he would temporarily cut the value-added tax on energy bills. But he insisted that he wouldn’t “max out the country’s credit card” and said significant tax cuts should wait until inflation is under control.
Both finalists have declared their admiration for Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister from 1979 to 1990, and her ring-wing, small-government economics.
“It’s all been very nonspecific and we’re really waiting for the next prime minister to hopefully hit the ground running and tell us what they’re going to do about what is in effect an emergency situation,” said Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London.
Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at Nottingham University, says Truss’s politics has played well with the estimated 180,000 Conservative Party members who have a say in choosing the country’s leader. But many have low expectations that she will deliver much financial relief to the country’s poorest.
“This is someone who believes in the market in a radical way, someone who believes that the objective of government is to get towards a much smaller state sooner rather than later. She takes that very seriously,” he said.
“So I think we’re going to have a very radical, right-wing, free market prime minister and one that actually is more of an ideologist than a pragmatist.”
While the economy is certain to dominate the first months of the new premier’s term, Johnson’s successor will also have to steer the U.K. on the international stage in the face of Russia’s war in Ukraine, an increasingly assertive China and ongoing tensions with the European Union over the aftermath of Brexit – especially in Northern Ireland.
Truss has talked tough as foreign secretary on all three main issues, though some analysts believe she may tone down her “robust” rhetoric if she becomes leader.
“I think on each of those issue the most domestically popular thing was to be quite tough — now that might change in future,” said David Lawrence, a research fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank.
One key aspect of foreign policy to look out for is whether Truss, if she wins, would put an influential group of Conservative “China hawks” in government, Lawrence added.
“If she does, then I think we will see a much more hawkish nudge in that direction when it comes to the U.K.-China policy,” he said.
Britain has been adrift since July 7, when Johnson announced he was quitting after his government was engulfed by one ethics scandal too many. Both Truss and Sunak were key players within Johnson’s Cabinet, though Sunak resigned in protest in the last days of Johnson’s time in office.
A Truss government may not sit well with many, because it reminds voters too much of Johnson’s misdeeds, Fielding said.
“She’s basically been elected as Boris Johnson 2.0 by Conservative members — she’s made it very clear that she is a loyal Boris Johnson supporter,” Fielding said. “I think she’s going to find it very difficult to disentangle herself from the whole Johnson shadow.”
Johnson has stayed on as prime minister in the interim, but he has been widely criticized for failing to respond to the worsening energy cost crisis. Officials have stressed that any new policies will need to wait until his successor is in place.
Voting in the leadership contest closed on Friday and the winner will be announced later Monday. Johnson and his successor will then travel to Scotland to meet with Queen Elizabeth II on Tuesday — one to formally tender his resignation, and the other to be invited to form a government.
The queen’s meetings with prime ministers traditionally take place in London’s Buckingham Palace. But the 96-year-old monarch has suffered from mobility problems in recent months, and so the arrangements are being moved for the first time to the Scottish Highlands, where she traditionally spends her summers.