Britain’s shambolic post-Brexit period continues to dominate the political and economic scene in the country. And the election of Liz Truss as the new prime minister and leader of the ruling Conservative Party also opens a new chapter of political haziness in Britain.
But the complexities do not simply end there, as with the death of Queen Elizabeth II a new chapter in the history of the United Kingdom has emerged for a nation that is mourning a long-serving queen while enduring growing economic hardships.
Truss fought a hard battle to secure her election as leader of the Conservative Party, beating fellow Tory MP Rishi Sunak and securing her position as new prime minister following the resignation of controversial former prime minister Boris Johnson. She did not need to call a general election as the Conservative Party has a majority in the House of Commons.
Johnson’s leadership was brimming with chaos and troubles that he did little to overcome. His eccentricities in handling issues such as the post-Brexit period and the Covid-19 pandemic in Britain exacerbated an already dire situation. Added to that was a series of scandals, such as the Partygate scandal when he was seen celebrating with friends and colleagues after imposing strict Covid-19 lockdown rules on the rest of the country.
These parties took place at a time when other people were not allowed to leave their homes or stray far from where they lived. But the former prime minister decided it was an appropriate time to celebrate in his 10 Downing Street residence. One of Johnson’s parties took place on the eve of prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021. The embarrassment and terrible timing of the incident forced Johnson to apologise to the late Queen Elizabeth II.
These antics and lack of accountability were only part of Johnson’s legacy, which is also marred by economic troubles and social instability across the country. The troubles accumulated leading to Johnson eventually becoming a prime minister without a cabinet. Many ministers including some of his closest allies turned in their resignations one after the other, resulting in 50 MPs resigning in a matter of two days in June.
Johnson was not helped by the circumstances surrounding his time in office because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Over 23.5 million cases have been reported to date in the UK, resulting in about 190,000 deaths. The country was taken by storm by the outbreak, which it could not contain in the first few months, and the introduction of the so-called “herd immunity” solution only exacerbated the situation. Johnson then enforced massive lockdowns, resulting in a wave of bankruptcies across the country.
The British economy is reeling from three major blows in the past six years including Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic, and now the energy crisis instigated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions imposed on Russian oil and gas supplies by Britain. The problem is that Britain along with most other European countries was not prepared for the latter decision. It was taken from a political and not an economic point of view in an attempt to put pressure on Russia to stop its invasion of Ukraine.
Britain’s energy crisis has meant the country joining a list of other European countries whose energy policies in recent decades have neglected their own independent or alternative energy supplies in favour of Russian oil and gas supplies. The end result has placed Britain under the scourge of rapidly increasing oil and gas prices.
But the economic troubles in the UK were brewing long before the energy crisis. They started with Brexit in 2016 as the country did not just withdraw from the EU but also from the single market that has been effective since 1992. This decision has caused major disruption in imports and exports from and to the UK.
With inflation reaching 10.1 per cent in July, the cost of living in the country has jumped dramatically. In addition, domestic gas prices increased by 96 per cent and domestic electricity prices by 54 per cent between July 2021 and July 2022.
Before leaving office, Johnson announced in May that his country would build one nuclear plant per year until 2050 to add 24 Gigawatts (GW) of power to the electricity grid. This is gargantuan, though not beyond the country’s capability. Nevertheless, it will still have to procure enough supplies from alternative suppliers until the planned nuclear plants are operational. Johnson’s announcement is being seen as a shift towards the French strategy of relying on nuclear power, which in France supplies about 70 per cent of electricity.
Britain’s relations with other European countries have also soured post Brexit. The feud between the UK and France escalated last year, especially when France threatened to cut the electricity supply to the island of Jersey over fishing rights. Though the threats took place during Johnson’s time in office, days before her election Truss did not hold back in questioning France’s friendship, saying “the jury’s is out” on whether it is Britain’s “friend or foe.”
The lack of diplomacy in her statement shows that she has not learned much from Johnson’s tumultuous time in office. Picking diplomatic fights and inflaming feuds with other European countries is the worst of choices for the new prime minister, especially with French President Emmanuel Macron’s willingness to reset diplomatic relations and forget the feuds with her predecessor.
The British economy is now near recession levels and the pound has dropped to its lowest level against the US dollar since 1985. Truss is now charged with the herculean task of getting the economy back on track and rectifying the dozens of missteps of her predecessors. Fixing the economy will be a difficult task amidst the growing global economic crisis, but Truss has to do so to prevent it suffering even further.
While Truss is now serving under new King Charles III, the problems of the past decade in Britain are haunting her from her first day in office. She has to deliver on the big promises she made during her election campaign. During the campaign some of her supporters carried banners saying “In Liz we Truss (Trust)”. But given the performances of the past three British prime ministers, the UK will have a hard time trusting anyone.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.