Why Liz Truss Resigned, and How Boris Johnson Could Return Next Week: British Prime Minister Liz Truss resigned on Thursday morning, making her the shortest-serving prime minister in UK history. The announcement didn’t come as a surprise, having followed turmoil in parliament unmatched even by the chaos that unfolded after the Brexit vote in 2016.
Soon after taking office just over six weeks ago, Truss announced a “mini-budget” economic package designed to dramatically reduce taxes and incentivize investment in the United Kingdom economy. Truss hoped that by taking a Thatcher-esque approach to the economy she would win the support of her party and, in the next two years before a general election, show the British public that her libertarian vision could promote wealth and prosperity amidst global economic downturns.
But it wasn’t to be. After the markets panicked and her party criticized her plans, Truss caved and forced her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, to resign. That first U-turn would prove her downfall, and what followed was days of upheaval. Truss later appointed an anti-Brexit member of parliament, Jeremy Hunt, as her new chancellor. In the days he was in office, Hunt reversed virtually all of her economic policies and confirmed the abrupt end of Trussonomics. Hunt promised to hike corporation tax to 25%, a measure championed by Truss’ competitor in the party leadership election, former chancellor Rishi Sunak. It may have pleased the markets, but it didn’t please her party, the official opposition, or the people who voted for her.
Truss’ announcement was predicted by many in the UK’s mainstream press on Wednesday night, and by Thursday, she revealed that she would leave No. 10 Downing Street after a successor is chosen no later than next Friday.
How the Next Prime Minister Will Be Chosen
The next prime minister will not be chosen by the general public, but instead by Conservative Party MPs and potentially Conservative Party members. In the last leadership election, held in the wake of Boris Johnson’s forced resignation, the Parliamentary Conservative Party (PCP) voted in a run-off election until just two final candidates were chosen. The party membership was then asked to choose between the two.
This time, however, the Conservative Party leadership is working to ensure that the leadership campaign takes no longer than a week. To speed up the process, candidates will be required to gain the support of at least 100 Conservative Party MPs.
This means a maximum of three candidates will ultimately be in the running, which will then be whittled down to two candidates. The party membership will then be asked to choose the next party leader in an online vote rather than with paper ballots – another measure designed to speed up the process. However, it is possible that after the two top candidates are chosen, one candidate may drop out of the race, allowing the Conservative Party to avoid taking the decision to the members.
Why the Leader Matters
The last general election in the United Kingdom was held in 2019. Boris Johnson led the party to a historic victory, winning the biggest majority since Margaret Thatcher. Johnson was elected on a populist platform, promising to deliver Brexit, reduce immigration, and “level up” the country.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed much of Johnson’s plans, and the former prime minister was frequently criticized for his focus on lockdowns and green energy policies.
The next election can be held no later than January 2025, though it is more likely to be held sometime in 2024. With just two years to go, the Conservative Party needs to make dramatic progress in fixing the national economy, avoiding or minimizing the impact of a recession, and delivering on the promises Johnson made to the public three years ago.
If a general election were held today, the Conservative Party would not only lose but could be wiped out in a historic defeat that sees the Labour Party win by an even greater margin than Johnson did in 2019.
According to a poll by Redfield and Wilton strategies, the Labour Party currently has 55% support among the British voting public, while the Conservative Party has just 19% – only seven points more than the Liberal Democrats. The next leader of the Conservative Party, therefore, needs to deliver policies that work in a short period of time while winning over the general public.
Whoever becomes the next prime minister must do that in the face of claims from the Labour Party that they have “no mandate” to run the country. Despite the fact that Britain is a parliamentary democracy, meaning that the voters choose a party to govern the country and not a single leader like the United States’ presidential system, the idea that Liz Truss had “no mandate” to govern was pushed hard by the Labour Party and other opposition MPs.
There is only one Conservative Party member of parliament who could run for leader, has the experience to quickly take to the role, and to avoid the “no mandate” attack – and that’s former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Johnson, who famously told the House of Commons “Hasta La Vista” at the dispatch box ahead of his departure, is reportedly considering a comeback. Johnson’s last words to the Commons as prime minister perhaps should have been, “I’ll Be Back.”
But can Johnson run and win?
Can Boris Johnson Come Back?
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson was understood to be traveling home from vacation on Thursday night and is considering running for the leadership if he knows that he has the support of 100 MPs so that the decision can be taken to the members.
Former Johnson cabinet member Jacob Rees-Mogg is rumored to be helping run Johnson’s campaign behind the scenes, along with long-time supporter Nigel Adams. Reports suggest that the “Back Boris” WhatsApp group shared by supportive members of Parliament has been reactivated.
As of Thursday evening, Johnson had received half the support he needs from Conservative Party MPs to run for leader, including eight whips. Johnson is leading the race so far, with more MPs publicly supporting his return as leader than his top rival, former chancellor and leadership candidate Rishi Sunak.
While Boris Johnson still faces an uphill battle hitting 100, the fact that he is the most recognizable and popular hypothetical candidate among the British electorate could be enough to sway skeptical MPs.
Political analyst Joe Armitage said on Thursday night that a Conservative MP in a marginal seat told him that local party members had already started sending “very strongly worded” emails in support of Johnson.
“A Conservative MP in a relatively marginal seat told me his Conservative association members have already started sending very strongly worded emails demanding he back Johnson or they’ll no longer support him. I imagine this will be a huge driver over the weekend,” Armitage said.
An Opinium poll also showed on Thursday that Johnson is the most popular candidate in a hypothetical general election campaign against Labour Party leader Keir Starmer. These facts alone could be enough to convince MPs to support Johnson’s return, knowing that their seats in Parliament could now depend on it.
If Johnson can win those 100 seats, and if previous polls suggesting that a majority of Conservative members didn’t want Johnson to resign to begin with remain true, Johnson could be prime minister again within a week.
Jack Buckby is a British author, counter-extremism researcher, and journalist based in New York. Reporting on the U.K., Europe, and the U.S., he works to analyze and understand left-wing and right-wing radicalization, and reports on Western governments’ approaches to the pressing issues of today. His books and research papers explore these themes and propose pragmatic solutions to our increasingly polarized society.