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Britain’s Conservative Party is suffering from a talent vacuum

Britain’s Conservative Party is suffering from a talent vacuum

by host

James Fitzgerald is a financial journalist and chief reporter at Citywire. 

As the United Kingdom’s prime ministerial hopefuls Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak struggle to nail down a coherent direction for the country, it has become increasingly evident that outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s 2019 clean-out of Tory moderates has left the party suffering from a lack of talent and a vacuum of policy ideas. 

Johnson’s wild swing to the populist right after winning an 80-seat majority was the beginning of the end for moderate Tory political ideals and programs. 

The lack of experience in his Cabinet and, indeed, the potential policies being tossed around by leadership candidates Truss and Sunak, highlight that the government has run out of ideas, which doesn’t bode well for the country as it enters a period of uncertainty and a cost-of-living crisis not seen since the end of the World War II. 

Both Truss and Sunak have spent weeks on their respective campaigns, throwing policy proposals around with gusto: Tax cuts benefiting the wealthy, when inflation is in double digits and the poor are suffering most? Sure. Cutting the civil service and tackling its “woke” ideology? Why not? It was even revealed recently that the Treasury’s considering giving already strained GPs the responsibility of deciding whether people deserve extra cost-of-living relief. 

The fundamental issue with Truss and Sunak’s policy spray-around is that none of it is consistent or very well thought out, and it’s purely targeted at the 160,000-plus Conservative members who are going to decide who will become the next prime minister. This week’s YouGov poll, putting Labour ahead by 15 points, shows that huge swathes of the country aren’t exactly confident that these ideas will help them through this crisis. 

Foreign Secretary Truss, for example, with her promise of a growth boom and tax cuts across the board, doesn’t seem to realize — or simply doesn’t care — that these policies will probably lead to a massive inflationary spiral over and above the double-digit price hikes the U.K. is already suffering from. Former Conservative Chancellor Nigel Lawson warned this could be the case earlier this month, stating that former Prime Minister Edward Heath’s similar policies in the 1970s crippled the British economy and put millions out of work. 

And though it’s not necessarily surprising that coherent economic policy isn’t either candidate’s strong suit, it is just a bit shocking when we consider that Sunak was chancellor for the best part of two years. 

What’s becoming clear, however, is that the 2019 exodus of moderate Conservatives — due to Johnson’s desire to swerve to the right and promote his supporters — has created a void. There are currently very few experienced ministers left in Cabinet, and especially in the Treasury. 

Ken Clarke, who was home secretary from 1992 to 1993 and chancellor of the Exchequer from 1993 to 1997, retired from the Commons in 2019 after losing the Conservative whip, having voted to block a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. Phillip Hammond, former Prime Minister Theresa May’s right-hand man in No.11, is also gone. And so too is 2019 leadership hopeful Rory Stewart, the former secretary of state for international development and minister of state at the Ministry of Justice who spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Foreign Office. He now spends his days hosting a political podcast. Even Winston Churchill’s grandson and Conservative party grandee Nicholas Soames had enough, stepping away from the government after butting heads with Johnson over Brexit in 2019. 

Instead, both Truss and Sunak have trumpeted Margaret Thatcher as inspiration for their policy ideas, and they’ve even begrudgingly agreed with some of former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s recent proposals to fix a broken economy — such as stopping the looming increase in the energy price cap.  

The only problem with this, however, is that Thatcher was prime minister 30 years ago, when the economy was in a very different state than it is now, and she’s been dead for 10 years. Meanwhile, Brown was obviously a progressive who wanted to spread money across the country — especially to the less fortunate — which isn’t exactly popular with Tory voters. 

Things could have been different had Hammond or Clarke still been present in the back benches, ready to tap Truss and Sunak on the shoulder to provide guidance in steering the U.K. through the current crisis, and to quietly have a word when their ideas are balmy. But this is no longer a possibility. It seems, moderate ideas are old news, and offering incoherent policy to appease the Conservative faithful is in vogue.  

Simply put, the now outgoing Johnson’s populist politics have left the U.K. in a dangerous place. There is, frankly, no one left in the Conservative party to provide any balanced policy proposals, as no one has any experience in doing so. 

instead, what the U.K. is left with is two prime ministerial hopefuls throwing ideas at a wall and hoping something sticks — which will only harm their election hopes in 2024 and throw the country into a bigger crisis. 

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