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UK’s Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss: An overview of the final two candidates for PM

Published: Updated:

In recent months, the issue of who will succeed Boris Johnson as Prime Minister has been hot on the lips of political pundits as repeated scandals have plagued Downing Street.

Rishi Sunak had initially been the favored candidate to replace Johnson. The former Chancellor’s economic interventions during the pandemic with the introduction of the furlough scheme and Eat Out to Help Out had made Sunak one of the most popular politicians in the country. However, the once popular ‘Dishy Rishi’ quickly became a pariah in the eyes of the public as the tax burden increased to the highest levels since the Attlee government of the 1950s and revelations of his wife’s tax affairs surfaced at the beginning of this year.

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The political vacuum left by Johnson and the lack of clear candidates on who should replace him as Prime Minister has led to a contest where the Conservative Parliamentary Party has whittled down a long list of potential contenders to two. Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor and Liz Truss, the acting Foreign Secretary.

Whilst current polling suggests that Truss is set to beat Sunak in the wider-membership election by 24 points, the Conservative Party Membership is notoriously reactionary and Sunak’s credentials as a polished communicator and strong debater could help close this gap.

As the Conservative party is set to elect its new leader and Britain’s next Prime Minister, here’s a closer look at the background of both candidates, the proposed policy agenda they seek to achieve as Prime Minister and the potential impact their policy agenda may have on the UK.

Background: Liz Truss

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. (File photo: Reuters)
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. (File photo: Reuters)

The origins of both candidates have proven to be an important aspect of the candidates’ leadership challenges thus far, arising as an issue in both leadership debates. Social class has always been an integral part of British politics and the capacity of candidates to identify with the electorate is a fundamental task for the Conservatives in maintaining their ‘red-wall’ majorities - a group of newly won Conservative constituencies that are by in large, white-working class in the deprived regions of the north of England. Constituencies that have traditionally voted for the labor party but swung to the Conservatives under Boris Johnson’s leadership.

In many ways, Truss’s background as somebody who grew up in the north of England and attended – what Truss characterizes – a failing comprehensive school is seemingly the better-suited candidate. Truss has consistently vocalized her opinions on the government’s leveling up agenda, discussing the issues of economic and opportunity disparity within Britain at length, even when a Liberal Democrat at the University of Oxford. Truss in her time in government spent several years serving within the Department for Education, spearheading reforms to the education system, particularly examination reform.

After entering Parliament in 2010, representing the constituency of South-West Norfolk, Liz Truss assumed several other cabinet roles. Truss has served within the Department for the Environment, Justice, the Treasury, International Trade, Women and Equalities, and is currently serving as the Foreign Secretary.

Despite being a Conservative Party member since 1998, Truss’s ideological convictions have changed dramatically in the years of being an MP. In 2016 Truss campaigned to remain within the European Union but later in 2017 adopted a hard-line conservative approach, expressing regret over her earlier decision.

After the resignation of Lord Frost last year, Truss assumed the role of lead negotiator with the European Union and has continued negotiating with Brussels under the policy of de-integration with the bloc. Truss during her campaign has expressed an interest in making changes to the Northern Ireland protocol, a recalcitrant issue for the Johnson government, by signaling a willingness to break parts of the Good Friday Agreement.


Background: Sunak

Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak walks in London, Britain, on July 18, 2022. (Reuters)
Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak walks in London, Britain, on July 18, 2022. (Reuters)

Sunak’s background is markedly different from that of many of his predecessors vying for the position of Prime Minister. Sunak is of Indian descent, with both his parents immigrating to Britain from East Africa after the collapse of the British Empire and discriminatory policies against south-Asians in many of the newly independent, former colonies. Sunak is a practising Hindu and would be the first ethnic-minority Prime Minister since Benjamin Disraeli, a Sephardi Jewish convert to Anglicanism served two terms as PM in the latter half of the 19th Century.

Whilst Sunak’s ethno-religious background is significantly different than previous contenders for PM, Sunak’s educational and class background is very much similar. In his youth, Sunak attended Winchester boarding school, one of the highest performing fee-paying schools in Britain and subsequently attended Oxford University where he read Politics Philosophy and Economics. Sunak’s privileged background has in large part fuelled a public perception of Sunak as an elitist.

Sunak’s net worth is estimated to be approximately $887 million and in combination with a recently surfaced video where Sunak in his youth claims to have no working-class friends has cemented Sunak’s privileged and out-of-touch image.

In connection to Sunak’s vast wealth has been a recent scandal pertaining to media the revelations that Sunak’s wife, the daughter of an Indian, billionaire and business magnate, Narayana Murthy, who despite living in the UK has a non-domiciled tax status in the UK, meaning her tax contributions are vastly lower.

Beyond just Sunak’s personal life, during Sunak’s time in politics, it is important to recognize his contributions to the previous Conservative governments in his ministerial appointments. Spanning from the treasury to the department for the local government, Sunak was eventually appointed as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2019 after the resignation of Sajid Javid where he served for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, before starting off a wave of resignations that ultimately cumulated in Boris Johnson’s resignation.

Policy: Economics and Inflation

Sunak’s policies as Chancellor have proven one of the most controversial in the Conservative Party’s recent history. The cost of the pandemic to the government has exceeded $501 billion in national debt as the government had been forced to implement a job retention scheme and pay for increased demand for government welfare in addition to the costs associated with addressing backlogs in the NHS and government departments.

This means that the national debt amounts to 96.1 percent as a ratio to GDP. Traditionally economists have favored maintaining the national debt during peacetime to below 50 percent as a proportion of GDP to prevent instability within the currency and bond markets. Sunak as chancellor had supposedly pressured Johnson to curb public borrowing by increasing taxes, most notably a rise in corporation tax from 19 percent to 25 percent as well as similar rises to national insurance and the freezing of personal income tax brackets.

Increasing taxes has always proven to be controversial within the Conservative Party. Margaret Thatcher’s economic transformation of Britain in the 80s and 90s embedded a neo-liberal, small state identity into the fabric of the Conservative party and amongst the very right of the party Sunak has met large resistance by the likes of Jacob Reese-Mogg who characterized Sunak as a ‘Socialist Chancellor’ as well as Liz Truss who insists upon reversing his tax cuts.

Truss’s belief in tax reversal is founded on the basis that increasing taxes, especially corporation tax, will make Britain a less attractive place for business and will negatively impact economic growth.

However, Sunak in each of the debates has warned of the potential consequence of these proposed unfunded tax cuts by Truss. Increasing the national debt does not only create uncertainty in the currency and gilt markets but many economists have warned of the potential to fuel an inflationary spiral, which at current is at 9.1 percent, the highest in the last 40 years. Further, it is not clear whether the tax rises proposed by Sunak are as damaging as Truss suggests. Despite the increase, corporation tax in Britain would remain at one of the lowest levels among the G20, far below that set in other European nations such as France and Germany.


Brexit

One of the key legacies of Johnson’s leadership has been Britain’s withdrawal agreement from the European Union. However, the Northern Ireland protocol remains as a major issue for the government, which in essence drives a wedge between goods passing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in order to protect the EU’s single market. The government had supposedly anticipated the EU to be more lenient in the enforcement of protocols outlined within the withdrawal agreement when considering the history of violence between Unionist and Republican communities in Northern Ireland. However, the EU has instead taken the UK to court for breaking international law for its failure to enforce the agreement.

The two candidates have approached the issue of Northern Ireland in stark difference. Despite Truss campaigning to remain within the EU in 2016, she is believed to show a willingness to break parts of the Good Friday Agreement in order to rectify issues with the protocol, a move that could risk a resuming of violence. In contrast, Sunak, who was a strong supporter of the Leave campaign, including voting to leave without a deal in 2019 has been rumored to want a compromise on the protocol with the EU.

Beyond Northern Ireland, Sunak has enthusiastically embraced the idea of free ports, a policy that was very much limited under rules set by the EU before Brexit as well as deregulating the British economy from European regulations.

Immigration

Linked with Britain’s withdrawal from the EU has been the desire of Britain to place further controls on immigration. In recent months, the most controversial policy utilized by the government has been Priti Patel’s Rwanda policy, where asylum seekers have been deported to the country in an effort to end the illegal boat crossings of immigrants from France across the English Channel.

The policy has been endorsed by both candidates publicly however, Truss has discussed the importance of expanding the policy to deter immigrants. She has proposed the possibility of expanding deportations to Turkey, which already holds the largest refugee population in the world.

The existing Rwanda policy is already controversial within the public sphere, since not only does it send vulnerable asylum seekers to a country with recent human rights abuses, but the scheme is expected to cost the public taxpayer $147 million without any clear certainty that the policy will curb the flow of migrants across the channel as only a small minority of asylum seekers will face deportation.

Energy

One of the key problems created by the war in Ukraine has been an abrupt termination of much of Russia’s oil and gas reserves entering the European market which in turn has fuelled high energy prices for consumers. Sunak as Chancellor has sought to relieve the financial burden of energy costs by offering $486 to all households and $1,458 to the poorest families on universal income – paid for by public borrowing and a windfall tax upon energy providers but has not offered any further pledges to relieve the financial burden. However, Sunak has recently made a longer-term pledge for British energy autarky by 2045 and to create a separate Department of Energy aimed at targeting the issues of British energy dependency.

Despite the challenges presented by the crisis both candidates have expressed a willingness to maintain the government 2050 target to achieve net-zero emissions and balance energy policy with the welfare of the climate. This is despite rumors that Sunak was supposedly resistant to spending money on climate measures when in the Treasury.

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