Why despite a new Prime Minister, Britain may be in for historic endgame

The dismissal of Prime Minister Boris Johnson by his own Conservative Party was no surprise. His lack of judgement was daily becoming an emb...

The dismissal of Prime Minister Boris Johnson by his own Conservative Party was no surprise. His lack of judgement was daily becoming an embarrassment and an impossible burden for the party. He was periodically exhibiting, what, at best, can be described, as a cavalier attitude towards facts and indifference towards established protocols of prime ministerial conduct. Boris Johnson had caused public outrage for disregarding laws, enacted and enforced by his own government, against any large numbers assembling together during the Covid pandemic, which foisted stern and deeply inconvenient restrictions on even family gatherings.

The prime minister, his ministers and staff repeatedly violated these laws by holding disorderly parties during the height of the pandemic in his own august residence at 10 Downing Street. Many officials were fined, as a result, including Mr Clean, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Boris Johnson looked like weathering the storm, though the public had not yet forgiven or forgotten until another instance of misleading the country over a sex scandal concerning a minister he had appointed surfaced; somewhere in the background, the interference of his new young activist spouse was supposedly also a factor in his serial miscalculations. This was the last straw and his two senior ethnic ministers, Rishi Sunak and his pal, Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary (i.e. Minister) resigned, precipitating a tsunami of resignations by other ministerial colleagues though some like the Foreign Secretary, the vastly ambitious and overrated Liz Truss, stuck with Boris Johnson.

Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. AP

A rather indecorous and ill-tempered contest to replace Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party and become prime minister, automatically as a result, has ensued. There have been media briefings against each other by candidates, leaking information of assorted missteps and examples of faux pas by each other. Front-runner Rishi Sunak’s father-in-law, NR Narayana Murthy funding alleged ‘fascist Hindu’ publications like Swarajya magazine is being bandied about, indicating a British penchant for contemptibly absurd hyperbole whenever India is invoked. More damaging and politically consequential has been the rank poor judgement of Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of Exchequer, the Finance Minister of the country, allowing his very wealthy wife to remain a ‘non domicile’ to reduce her UK tax liability though she quickly abandoned the status once knowledge of it became public. But the damage has been done, compounding the disadvantage of him being brown and too clever by half.

The Johnson loyalist, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, one likely winner in the contest has been accused of dishonesty about her school background though it is her unbridled ambition to succeed at any cost that really jars. She has taken to presenting herself, rather improbably, as the successor of the late prime minister Margaret Thatcher, though the idea the latter is a historic personality in the Churchillian mould is entirely manufactured too.

File photo of UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss | AP

The third noteworthy contender in the race is Penny Mordaunt, the Trade Secretary, once a magician’s assistant and being hailed as the likeliest winner, highlighting the instinct of the Tory Party faithful to prefer appearance over substance. Nothing in her political career so far indicates particular skill to navigate the intensifying challenges ahead for the country, but she seems unlikely to become one of the two final leadership contenders. One unexpectedly attractive contender, the articulate and plain-speaking Kemi Badenoch, of Nigerian origin, was eliminated in the latest round.

Penny Mordaunt during the launch her campaign to become the next leader of the Conservative Party. If she wins, she will become UK's third woman PM. AFP

The two candidates, among the remaining four, finally selected by the parliamentary party will be presented to the entire Conservative Party membership. The most credible candidate with the least baggage of past indirections, Tom Tugendhat, chair of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, was contemporaneously eliminated with Badenoch. The final two contenders are most likely to be Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson’s own preferred choice to replace him, Liz, Truss, whose inane advice to India on the Ukraine its EAM, Subramanium Jaishankar had skewered during a public interview in Delhi.

It seems both Britain and its political parties prefer outward gloss, however superficial, more than thoughtful substance and the country will evidently get the leader it deserves. This was also the reason for the ascent of the populist Boris Johnson, whom his former media boss, the historian Sir Max Hastings, had excoriated as incompetent and unreliable at the outset.

Boris Johnson’s hollow demagoguery has now plunged the country into a virtually insurmountable economic and political crisis because the cost of Brexit was misrepresented and the withdrawal appallingly badly negotiated. The predictable economic setback has duly engulfed the country and an insuperable problem has arisen with the British colony of Northern Ireland. It cannot be detached from the European Union without destroying the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that includes an open border with the Irish Republic, which brought peace to the province.

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It is highly likely that Liz Truss or Penny Mordaunt will emerge as the victorious leader among the remaining contenders. The Conservative Party membership at large, which will have the final vote, appears unprepared to surrender the country to a non-white colonial, Rishi Sunak, to occupy the highest office with control over the nation’s destiny, though he still remains ahead in the parliamentary Conservative Party. But the parliamentary Conservative party’s support for Rishi Sunak may be a cynical exercise to avoid accusations of blatant racism in the knowledge that Conservative Party membership will reject him at the end of the day, sparing them the embarrassing task of repudiating him precipitously in the leadership race.

File image of Rishi Sunak. AP

There is a historic endgame being played out for the hitherto imperial British nation over which the sun never set. The country is not well-placed to compete with the world’s dominant economies owing to socio-cultural and institutional reasons that have inhibited its ability to produce quality manufactures in volume. Its reliance on service exports, especially financial intermediation by effectively operating as a virtual tax haven, will be more difficult outside the European Union and competition from alternative rival centres though the UK authorities have threatened to make the UK even more appealing to investors. British educational achievements are only in the area of science though rarely turned into innovative mass production opportunities except in a few areas like pharmaceuticals.

On the international political stage, Britain is an American vassal that has obediently upped the ante in the Ukraine war, as instructed by Washington, in desperation to reach a trade pact with the US though that cannot be reached overnight. The allure of the Chinese trade and investment option that had been embraced with shameless alacrity has faded somewhat in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic. A desperate campaign, assisted by dubious Indian-origin influencers of East African origin, is in train to ensnare the ever-gullible Indians in an economic embrace though, in any event, the desired positive impact on Britain’s economic fortunes can only occur in the long-term.

Yet, there is also a deeper political crisis in the United Kingdom that is uncoiling like a python to which there is no obvious solution. Scotland is repeatedly pressing for independence from the United Kingdom, especially in the aftermath of Brexit which its voters had rejected and that seems an outcome that will eventually occur. The fate of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom is also increasingly in doubt because the open border with the Irish Republic is a non-negotiable reality and its sanctity can only be assured by ending the open border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. This is a potentially explosive problem since it threatens a descent back to the thirty-year civil war that was ended by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Northern Irish Protestants regard any barrier to unhindered and open economic relationships with the rest of the UK as a prelude to union with the Irish Republic and elements among them may take to violence in order to thwart it. This has been the achievement of the exceptionally reckless Boris Johnson, the pompous populist entertainer without substance that the British public embraced so eagerly in 2019.

Britain is also descending into a miasma of Islamic tyranny, with the authorities apparently not unwilling to make any concession to appease Muslim voters. They populate its prisons vastly disproportionately (15 percent of all inmates) in relation to their numbers in the general population (4 percent) and Pakistani-origin Muslim men have been grooming and raping thousands of vulnerable young women for decades, with apparent official complicity. This constituency is likely to exercise a baleful influence over Indo-British relations and especially when the Labour Party, its SDP and Green Party allies are in power, which will inevitably happen.

Britain last had a prime minister of substance and standing was the Welshman David Lloyd George during World War I and its aftermath. Winston Churchill was a great wartime leader but sagacity and vision have been lacking ever since. The quality of the political class has been deteriorating with the ebbing of empire, which both necessitated and produced skill and vision, among them Lord George Nathaniel Curzon though he never became prime minister of the country. Once upon a time, Britain had institutions in the shape of its private schooling, described as ‘public schools’ and its older universities that produced the British equivalent of Ottoman janissaries who were taught and socialised in patriotism, selfless service and religious fidelity.

A huge swathe of this generation of students were pointlessly sacrificed in the battlefields of Europe during World War I and the public schooling system itself also declined in the face of ideology and cultural change. A contemporary revival of British public schools has occurred owing to foreign demand of the culturally and politically bankrupt elites of former colonies and escapees from privations in communist China. But nothing is destined to revive a vigorous and determined elite that history has made defunct and changed circumstances their relevance unbefitting. A new British prime minister will be in office within weeks but it is unlikely to bring momentous change even if the ambitious and abstemious Rishi Sunak is selected, though he will herald a truly symbolic severing of Britain from its imperial past.

 The writer taught international political economy for more than two decades at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Views expressed are personal.

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