Is Britain about to reunite with its ex(PM)?
Plenty of jokes are making rounds in all kinds of social media platforms since British Prime Minister Liz Truss announced her resignation on October 20. Some of those are just simple facts, yet so hilarious that controlling laughter would be difficult. One Twitterati, Alan McGuinness, had a viral tweet that reads, "My son has lived through four chancellors, three home secretaries, two prime ministers and two monarchs. He's four months old." A meme lists Liz Truss' legacies as "She buried the Queen, the Pound, the Country, the Chancellor, the Conservative Party. All in a month." And in the world of Tiktoking, a cheeky video runs a recruitment ad for the UK prime minister, which says that the applicant doesn't need any experience, not even any IQ, who will be working along with a team that changes almost every day.
Last week, I wrote about a British tabloid's funny betting of a head of lettuce against the premiership of Liz Truss to see which one outlasts the other. As the contest began for succeeding her, the same British tabloid, the namesake of this daily, introduced an aubergine representing former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was forced out of office by his fellow party MPs following revelations of a series of scandals. With a warning that "Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse," it termed Boris Johnson "Aubergine BoZo" and wrote, "Boomerang ex-PM Boris Johnson is back from his political wilderness and aiming for a Halloween resurrection. Supporters claimed former leader 'Bozo' had 'unfinished business' as he flew from the Caribbean to run for Prime Minister." Left-leaning Daily Mirror, under the title "Surely… not again," has reported that the former PM's Number 10 hopes "sparked fury among bereaved Covid families."
The first entrant in the leadership race is Leader of the House Penny Mordaunt, an ardent Brexiteer. But the magic number required for getting on the ballot is 100, and so far that number has been crossed by former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who was beaten by Liz Truss in the previous contest. He is currently leading among the MPs, although in the previous contest it didn't help him to win over the hearts of the grassroots. Many of the party members see him as the man responsible for triggering the Johnson premiership's collapse. However, Rishi Sunak has the early advantage of explicit support from MPs, which could crown him as the new prime minister by Monday evening, if both Johnson and Mordaunt fail to muster enough support among MPs to cross the threshold for initiating a contest.
In contrast, Boris Johnson is still popular among the members, and some of those 146 MPs who had expressed no-confidence in him now think he offers the best hope for the revival of the party. But, it is unlikely that he would be able to get the majority of those rebellious MPs unite behind his second stint and thereby bring back stability in governance.
Despite the hype created by his loyalists and the campaign team, others have raised a number of critical questions. The prospect of Boris Johnson's return to Number 10, Downing Street has alarmed grandies of the Conservative Party and many of its traditional supporters. One of them is a former leader of the party, Lord Hague, who warned that it could lead to a "death spiral" for the Conservative Party. Johnson returning as prime minister would be an "absolutely catastrophic decision," said Foreign Office Minister Jesse Norman, and Sir Roger Gale, MP has said in such a situation, he would quit the party.
One of the most influential newspapers that usually supports the Conservatives, The Times, declared in its lead headline, "Johnson will prove fatal." His final months in office were dogged by accusations of breaking the ministerial code by not telling the truth about Covid lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street. A parliamentary committee is now set to begin a probe into the allegations of misleading the House, which in theory could lead to him being suspended from parliament, or even being kicked out as an MP. Early signs indicate that his return may cause renewed instability in the financial markets. Reflecting those concerns, the Financial Times weekend headline said, "Investors and MPs alarmed by the idea of Johnson's return to No 10." Reading newspapers gives a feeling that there is palpable nervousness in Britain over a potential reunion with its former prime minister, as is the case among loving couples following relationship failures.
There is little doubt among political pundits that the factional fight within the Conservative Party will end anytime soon, and none of the three leadership contenders would be able to unite the party and restore some degree of stability. The unprecedented instability that followed Boris Johnson's exit has severely dented the image of the UK as a stable democracy and a strong economy, and it happened under the stewardship of Liz Truss, who had the most ministerial experience among the current set of leaders. A prolonged Russia-Ukraine war means no early end of the global energy crisis that led to spiralling costs of living, and it would require a strong leadership, which is unlikely to emerge without a general election.
The Labour Party and other opposition parties have demanded a general election at the earliest, and opinion polls suggest Labour will have a comfortable victory. But the Conservative MPs are resisting an early election fearing a total wipe-out. However, if the new leader fails to calm the markets and restore some degree of stability quickly, an early election would become inevitable.
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist. His Twitter handle is @ahmedka1