Britain Faces Challenge to Rebuild Global Image Amid Political Chaos
Former chancellor Rishi Sunak won the backing of Conservative Party lawmakers Monday to become Britain’s new prime minister, following the resignation last week of Liz Truss, who spent under two months in office.
He is expected to visit King Charles III on Tuesday to accept the invitation to form a government.
Sunak will become Britain’s third prime minister in just seven weeks, after a period of political chaos that has dented the country’s global image. With inflation above 10% and the economy predicted to slip into recession, Sunak’s political honeymoon will likely be short.
Sunak gave a brief televised address Monday from Conservative Party headquarters in London.
“The United Kingdom is a great country, but there is no doubt we face a profound economic challenge. We now need stability and unity,” he said.
“I will make it my utmost priority to bring our party and our country together because that is the only way we will overcome the challenges we face and build a better, more prosperous future,” he added.
Sunak has one overriding priority, said professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics.
“The new prime minister faces the question of balancing the books, convincing the international financial markets that Britain is sensibly governed again,” he told The Associated Press.
Sunak was chancellor under Prime Minister Boris Johnson and was the main architect of the government’s estimated $420 billion COVID-19 support package for workers and businesses, which was widely praised in Britain.
Johnson stepped down as prime minister in July after losing the support of his MPs following a series of scandals.
Over the past weekend, Johnson flew back from a Caribbean vacation to launch an audacious bid to return to the top job, before pulling out of the race Sunday evening, saying, “It was simply not the right time.”
Truss won the contest to replace Johnson, entering office September 6. She quit last week after her tax-cutting plans sent government borrowing costs soaring, leading rating agencies to downgrade Britain’s economy.
Sunak, who lost to Truss in the summer leadership campaign, won the backing of most Conservative lawmakers on Monday and will take over the role unchallenged.
The political chaos has hit Britain’s reputation for stability, according to Quentin Peel, an associate fellow at research group Chatham House.
“It’s a shambles, really, and it looks on the international stage like a mockery of what Britain used to stand for,” Peel told VOA.
Many Britons say they want stability after years of political upheaval.
“We just need to get this sorted. We’re an embarrassment, really. If you look at all the other foreign press about us, we’re the laughingstock,” Keith Dargue, manager of a London dental practice, told AP.
“I would like a calm government to just run the country after Brexit, after a COVID epidemic, and with the threat of a UK breakup,” said commuter Duncan Wood.
The opposition Labor Party is currently around 30% ahead in the polls. Party leader Keir Starmer is demanding a general election.
“Give people a choice. Do you want to continue with this chaos, which is damaging the economy? Or wouldn’t you prefer a Labor government, the stability that that will bring for our country?” Starmer said last week.
Critics say Sunak has no popular mandate to govern; but there is precedent in British politics, analyst Tony Travers said.
“When Gordon Brown became prime minister in 2007, taking over from Tony Blair … It was done in this way in the Second World War — Winston Churchill took over [from] Neville Chamberlain at the beginning of the Second World War,” Travers said.
Since the 2016 vote to leave the European Union, Britain has had five prime ministers, Peel noted.
“The elephant in the room, if you like, throughout the last few months of political turmoil, has always been this Brexit decision. And it’s been papered over, because COVID really, and the war in Ukraine, became the big headline grabbers.”
“Leaving the European Union has really damaged the British economy. It’s damaged investment in the British economy,” Peel said. “Foreign investors are turning away, and it’s poisoned the relations between London and the member states of the European Union in Brussels.”
Britain is second only to the United States in its level of military support for Ukraine. Continuing that is key to restoring Britain’s standing on the global stage, Peel said.
“Giving them all the assistance that we can in order to ensure that they don’t lose this war with Russia. Secondly, I would say that the relations have got to be improved with the rest of the European Union,” he added.