For anyone seeing the international news about the UK’s currently-ruling Conservative Party, it can be difficult to follow just what the hell is going on. Prime Ministerial resignations have been followed by reshuffle upon reshuffle of the British government, and, after unceremoniously dumping the shortest-serving prime minister in British history out the back door, the UK government is facing an almost-unprecedented financial crisis, a seismic cost-of-living crisis, and a brand new prime minister all at once.
After more than a decade in charge of the United Kingdom, it would be easy to assume that the last few months represent a terminal point of crisis for one of the world’s most successful modern Conservative parties. This sense of impending doom is magnified by a series of opinion polls from the last few months which show the opposition Labour Party with an almost unprecedented lead that, were it repeated in a general election, would leave the Conservative Party facing a near-total electoral wipeout.
Yet this is only part of the picture. Any kind of successful internationalism depends upon understanding the situation accurately and having a clear sense of the opportunities and dangers for a left alternative to British Conservatism. It’s worth it to try to tell the whole story—to dig into the current state of the UK government, how we ended up here, and what might come next.
A good starting point is former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson made his name in Britain as an opportunist and savvy media manipulator, building not only a political profile but a celebrity one, too. He carefully manufactured a personal image as a bumbling clown, erudite and posh, and unmistakably British. In the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, Johnson had written two versions of his widely read newspaper column: one calling for Britain to remain in the EU and one calling for a leave vote. He decided at the last minute to attach himself to the campaign to leave (it is widely thought that he didn’t actually expect the campaign to win).
In terms of celebrity, a long record of falsehoods and some shameless self-promotion often leads American leftists to make the mistake of analogously comparing Johnson to Donald Trump. In contrast to Trump, Johnson’s own political instincts are more libertarian. Whilst the Trump electoral coalition had a recognisable shape to it, Johnson’s backing came from a disparate collection of groups, from across the deindustrialised North of the country to the more traditional Conservative areas of affluent suburbia around London and the South East.
Johnson is in many ways a deeply old-fashioned politician in terms of his vanity, his ineffectiveness, and his fondness for acting as if the rules do not apply to him. Not for nothing does Rhian Jones at The New Socialist compare Johnson to the grotesques that appeared in an 18th-century Gillray cartoon. After winning a sizable majority in the 2019 election, Johnson was in charge through the COVID-19 pandemic, and his initial response exemplified his libertarian instincts. British media was full of talk about building herd immunity, with Johnson especially prone to a kind of laissez-faire dithering before the realities of the dangers to both the health system and the economy necessitated lockdowns and state intervention.
It’s said that Britain generally loves a crisis, and moments of crisis tend to play well with more right-leaning politics. The COVID crisis allowed Johnson to invoke the Blitz spirit of self-sacrifice, linking his politics to a kind of imperial nostalgia. However, as the deaths began to pile up and the stories about misappropriated and misspent public funds began to accumulate, the public mood shifted. The government was never particularly popular, and as stories broke of Johnson and close allies enjoying drinks and parties at 10 Downing Street whilst ordinary people couldn’t meet with one another in public, the mood of the country turned decisively against him.
High-profile ministers in Johnson’s government suddenly saw him as too electorally toxic, and a spate of resignations followed. The Conservative Party brought a vote of no confidence against Johnson in Parliament on June 6, 2022. Johnson barely managed to win the vote, with Conservative MPs voting 211 to 148 to retain him as the party’s leader. Johnson’s win illustrated that despite being a liability to the party, Conservatives couldn’t furnish a candidate to replace him. However, the pressure eventually grew to a breaking point. The final straw came when Johnson promoted MP Chris Pincher to the position of deputy whip despite allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior against Pincher that stretched back years. After dozens of high-ranking ministers and aides resigned over the course of several days, Johnson’s position became utterly untenable and, in July 2022, he announced his resignation on the steps of No. 10 Downing Street.
Readers from outside the UK might wonder why Johnson’s resignation didn’t necessitate a general election for a new prime minister. In the UK, general elections are about votes for a particular political party to form governments, not for someone to lead the nation. After all, there is no constitutional or legal requirement to hold one: the leader of the party needed to change, but this is not the same thing as requiring a change in government. The UK parliamentary system operates as a bicameral legislative body: the House of Lords, made up of British nobility (either hereditary or appointed) serves mainly as a body of oversight, examining in detail legislation or policy from the House of Commons. The House of Commons, also called Parliament, is where the government is formed by politicians from the party which receives a majority of the seats won in a general election under the “first past the post” system. Parliaments last for five years according to British law, unless certain conditions are met. This is designed to ensure stability of government, and there is little that can force a government to call an election before they absolutely must. Because the last general election was in 2019, voters in the UK don’t expect another election until January 2025, unless political events make one necessary.
Yet the Conservative leadership election is illuminating inasmuch as it reveals the ways in which the Conservative Party and its voters are not a singular ideologically coherent group. Rather, Conservative votes traditionally come from two main sources: the large swathes of the financial sector who made their money in the period of deregulation from the 1980s to the financial crash of 2008 and the old money, High Church Tories who tend toward more traditional conservatism. The rest come from voters who emerged in the deindustrialised North in the wake of Boris Johnson’s 2019 electoral success, along with Thatcherite neoliberals who want to shrink the state, and anti-Thatcherite, more socially liberal, Conservatives.
The party elected its leader by nominating members of the Conservative Parliamentary Party, and, after a series of hustings and debates, whittled down the field down to two via a series of recurring ballots. The party membership, around 200,000 dues-paying members, then voted for their preference. The final two came down to a choice between Rishi Sunak (who had been chancellor of the exchequor under Boris Johnson and responsible for much of the UK government’s state support through the pandemic) and Liz Truss, a former foreign secretary of state.
Truss comes from the most vociferously Eurosceptic and libertarian wing of the party and is affiliated with a section of the Conservative Party called the European Research Group (ERG). This is a group of low-tax, small-state libertarians whose most pressing concern for a long time was British withdrawal from the European Union. Truss’ Conservative politics are informed by hardline libertarianism, a deep distrust of Europe and the EU, and loathing for state taxes, exemplified in the book Britannia Unchained, written by Truss and a host of other right libertarians. This ideological line is appealing rhetoric for a section of the Conservative base, and Truss quickly became a front-runner for party leadership. As this was happening, Britain was experiencing a colossal increase in energy prices, rapidly growing inflation, and an ever-widening gap in income equality. Conservative politics in Britain have always depended upon the manipulation of material hardships, so economic problems are funneled into cultural war-style propagandizing around immigration or, in one memorable phrase, ‘tofu eating wokerati.’
By a margin of around 20,000 votes, Truss was elected leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister of the country on Sept. 5, 2022. Friends and fellow true believers from the ERG were rapidly appointed into key positions, including Truss’ close ideological ally Kwasi Kwarteng as chancellor. The primary objectives for the new government, Truss claimed, were a reduction in taxation and implementation of economic policies catering towards “growth.” In short, what was promised was an experiment in seeing how right-libertarian economic policy could shape and direct the country’s economy. Given the seriousness of the economic situation, the new government announced a “mini-budget” that set out its spending priorities and delivered it to members of parliament on Sept. 23.
In terms of its content, it was a dream for the right-libertarian wing of British Conservatism. It scrapped the cap on bankers’ bonuses in the City of London, scrapped the 45% income tax rate for the highest earners, announced a planned reversal in corporation tax from 19% to 25%, cut stamp duty on home purchases, and scrapped a planned special levy to pay for nationalized health care and social services. In short, it was a package of colossal tax cuts designed to be paid for through massive government borrowing, with the belief that low taxes would spur enormous economic growth. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) is the independent watchdog of the UK government finances, and was not consulted about the budget. As a result, they could not give projections on the proposed policies or their assessment of the predicted impact on the British economy.
The international and economic reaction was immediate and catastrophic. Just three days after the mini-budget was released, the British pound plummeted to its lowest-ever level against the US dollar as international investors and traders became spooked by the UK’s increased borrowing. The Bank of England talked urgently about raising interest rates to bring inflation under control, and within days, 40% of all mortgage products in the UK were no longer available. By Oct. 5, the rate on a two-year mortgage was over 6% for the first time since the massive crisis of capitalism in 2008. Even the IMF criticized the UK government for increasing inequality with unfunded tax cuts that primarily benefited the very rich. The gilt market (the bonds issued by the UK government on its own debt) saw a sharp rise as traders sold off UK assets. Bond securities, which have historically been a reliable investment for large UK pension funds, were sold off, sparking fears that the funds would collapse. In short, what we saw were some of the deep-seated economic problems in the UK being met by policies custom-made to make them all worse.
In a move widely seen as grossly self-serving on the part of Truss, Kwarteng was swiftly fired on Oct. 14. Seeing Truss throw her political ally under the bus to save her own skin did little to make the public more sympathetic, and by Sept. 26, letters of no confidence were reportedly already being submitted to her party’s political hierarchy. A new chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, was quickly appointed and almost immediately announced reversals of the central points of Truss’ economic policy. With Hunt in position, Truss was prime minister in name only; she had no political capital, and with her ideological opponent in parliament trashing what had been the key part of her election bid, she was essentially already a lame duck. Members of the party were in open revolt and many experienced MPs called for Truss to resign. On Oct. 20, Truss resigned, setting the record for the shortest-serving prime minister in UK history. Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor, was elected as the newest Conservative leader and became prime minister on Oct. 25.
Sunak has retained Jeremy Hunt as chancellor, and another fiscal statement from the government came just this week. If Truss’ idea of low-tax, high-growth economics proved to be a catastrophic failure, the alternative Conservative economic response is a repeat of the austerity that has wracked Britain over the past decade. The downside is that after 12 years of Conservatives cutting the social safety net, gutting local government, and stripping nationalized services to the bone, the next generation of austerity is likely to hit the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest. On Nov. 17, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced a series of tax increases and spending cuts at the same time as economists forecast an almost 10% drop in living standards and a significant drop in wages, all alongside a recession lasting an entire year.
It’s striking that the OBR which brought down Truss was set up 10 years ago by George Osborne, the former chancellor and economic architect of austerity. Those policies led to around 300,000 excess deaths, and yet George Osborne (loathed by the public) is now acting as an advisor to Hunt, the latest politician to determine the fiscal policy of the UK government. While the Conservatives aim at creating another, harsher version of financial cutbacks, they’ve also heavily promoted culture-war politics, viciously targeting trans people and running an immigration and asylum system so cruel that the government itself is being threatened with legal action.
From the left, the general and popular response has been to call for an immediate general election, responding both to the Labour lead in opinion polls and the perceived lack of mandate that the government currently has. However, there is still no legal ground for the government to call one. According to national law, the next UK general election has to be held no later than January 2025, but given the current polling there is little political reason for a Conservative government to call that election until the last possible moment.
More broadly, as a question of strategy, there is something deeply problematic about mobilizing such popular discontent solely to get the current leader of the Labour party elected. After all, in the last couple of weeks, current Labour Party leader Keir Starmer has admitted that there is little difference between his policy on immigration and the vile rhetoric of the Conservatives. Desperate for acceptance from both British business and the country’s deeply right-wing media, Starmer went on the record bemoaning too many foreigners being hired to work in the NHS. Rather than simply call for the direction of political energy into support for a singular political party, the challenge for the British left is to channel the emerging discontent into something wider than just electioneering aimed at undoing the work of the last decade or so. Instead of pinning all of our hopes onto the electoral success of a party that has been deeply hostile to its own left-wing members, the emerging wave of strike action across multiple sectors of British society should be grasped as an enormous opportunity. From teachers and lecturers, to nurses, to those in the public sector and railway workers, huge swathes of the working population are discovering the importance of not just defending their interests, but the interests of the working class as a whole. The cost-of-living crisis has brought new political energy to movements around wages and conditions on a national level. In short, what is needed is not just an election, but a politics of class consciousness. It is working people who have suffered the most under Conservative austerity, and it is movements by and for the working class—not simply neoliberal political parties—that can change those conditions for the better.