Britain is in limbo. The country has been reeling through the storm without a captain since Prime Minister Boris Johnson was forced to resign in early July following a series of scandals. And that at a time when leadership is actually urgently needed. Inflation is now over ten percent and the population is groaning under the rapidly rising cost of living. In addition, there is the long rat tail that Brexit still has in its wake - not to mention the Russian war against Ukraine.
And all that is just the tip of the iceberg of problems that the new number one in Downing Street will have to deal with from Monday. Then the British will finally find out who will take the wheel in the future. For many, it is already an election without a winner.
On the one hand, this may be due to the type of tuning itself. Because the next prime minister will not be determined by millions of British voters as usual, but solely by the approximately 160,000 members of the conservative Tory party - who, compared to the rest of the population, are predominantly white, male and wealthy. On the other hand, the two final candidates - Secretary of State Liz Truss and former Treasury Secretary Rishi Sunak - have damaged each other so much in the week-long campaign that many would now prefer even the disgraced Johnson. The tensions became particularly clear during the last speech duel between the two on Wednesday in London's Wembley Arena.
The focus of the debate was the exploding cost of living - the most important topic in the country at the moment. Truss, seen as the clear favorite in polls, used her momentum in front of thousands of Tory members and announced "massive tax cuts" if she won. As the new head of government, she wants to focus on "energy prices for consumers" and boosting the economy - she did not give any specific details when asked. At the same time, as a former finance minister, she accused Sunak of tax increases and criticized the fact that, unlike her, he did not want to rule out energy rationing in the winter.
The latter, in turn, described his competitor's plans as "financially irresponsible". Tax cuts without parallel spending cuts would jeopardize Britain's reputation in global credit markets, the finance expert warned. With his own economic plan, which only provides for selective relief, Sunak promised to get inflation under control more quickly. In his closing speech, he refrained from stabbing Truss and instead tried to distance himself from Boris Johnson. He will lead a government "that is run competently and honestly" and that has "decency and integrity" at its core. "This is the change I will bring. This is the Prime Minister I will be."
While Liz Truss describes her political rise as a "journey", critics simply accuse her of opportunism. After she was a member of the Liberal Democrats during her studies, she switched to the Conservatives after graduating, for which she entered parliament in 2010. With a series of posts as education, finance and justice minister, the 47-year-old quickly became a heavyweight in the cabinet.
But it was above all her exchange rate in the dispute over Brexit that brought Truss a lot of criticism: after she initially advocated the United Kingdom remaining in the EU, the politician changed sides shortly before the referendum and has been selling herself as a big one ever since Brexit advocate - with success. Shortly thereafter, she became only the second woman to be appointed British Foreign Secretary by Prime Minister Johnson.
Not only their populist demands are reminiscent of Boris Johnson. Just like the outgoing prime minister, Truss presents herself as an outsider - although she has been a member of the government for eight years. The conservatives also wisely refrain from criticizing their former boss - in complete contrast to their competitor.
Just a few months ago, Rishi Sunak was considered the most promising candidate for the post of prime minister. In February 2020, the Stanford graduate with Indian roots became finance minister in Johnson's cabinet and had to steer the British economy through the corona pandemic and lockdowns within a very short time. His personal poll numbers went through the roof following the distribution of government aid.
But public opinion about Sunak has turned - especially after it became known that his wealthy wife used a legal loophole to save millions in taxes herself (stern reported). On top of that, the 42-year-old is facing a police fine for attending one of the infamous Downing Street lockdown parties in June 2020.
Sunak promises to be the candidate to save Britain and get inflation under control. But his fiscal stubbornness in the face of rising living costs - and his rejection of tax cuts - is not well received in his own party. For many conservative party members, the decision that Sunak made on July 1 weighs much more heavily. With his resignation from the cabinet, he set the ball rolling that forced Boris Johnson days later to announce his resignation as party leader and prime minister. Johnson's supporters - who still carry weight with the Tories - know only one word: treason.
Whoever wins the race at the end, many Britons should be relieved that it's finally over. The intra-party vote continued until Friday afternoon, and the result is to be announced next Monday. This also marks the end of Boris Johnson's scandal-ridden era as prime minister. His successor is to be received by Queen Elizabeth II at Balmoral Castle in Scotland on Tuesday - and then move into the government seat on Downing Street.
However, the new number one will hardly have much time to celebrate. Because no matter who follows in Johnson's footsteps in the end, one thing is certain: she or he will inherit a number of problems like hardly any British prime minister before. But maybe fewer parties - in this case - isn't too bad an omen.
Sources: Guardian, BBC, NY Times, The Times, YouGov poll, with AFP footage