UK’s new leader: Statesmanship required to achieve Global Britain

“A week is a long time in politics”, said Britain’s former Prime minister, Harold Wilson, and his successor, Boris Johnson, can now see why. Although he survived the “Partygate” scandal, involving illegal drinking parties at 10 Downing Street during lockdown, he was toppled within days by a sex scandal. 

After one of his ministers, Chris Pincher, drunkenly groped two men at the Carlton Club in London’s Mayfair district on June 30, Johnson’s judgment in appointing him was condemned, just as his explanations were ridiculed. 

Amid mass resignations from the government, his Conservative Party members of parliament (MP’s) rebelled, making clear they had lost faith in him, and this triggered his resignation as party leader on July 7. 

The same MPs then had to choose two candidates for the party leadership for consideration by the Conservative Party’s members in the country, of whom there are over 160,000. Once the membership has chosen the party’s new leader, he or she will be sworn in as Prime Minister on September 5, when Johnson will formally resign. 

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Of the three candidates who made it to the final ballot on July 21, the ex-chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, secured the backing of 137 MPs, with the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, obtaining 113, while the Trade Minister, Penny Mordaunt, garnered 105, and was eliminated from the contest.  

It is, of course, significant that the Conservative MPs put Sunak in first place, as they work with the  candidates day in and day out, and understand better than anybody their strengths and weaknesses. They clearly consider he is the best of the bunch, and it is not hard to see why. He has always been competent and professional, with a principled approach to the issues of the day. 

One defining difference between Sunak and Truss concerns competence. Whereas Sunak is clearly the brighter of the two, he is regarded by those who know him best as “a safe pair of hands”.  By contrast, Truss is a political lightweight, whose missteps are legendary

Thus, despite having successfully directed the government’s financial response to the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic impact, he resigned on July 5, on a point of honor, once Johnson’s position became untenable.

Although Sunak, who previously worked for Goldman Sachs, only became an MP in 2015, with the support of the then-Prime Minister, David Cameron, he was promoted to Johnson’s cabinet in 2019, becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) in 2020. 

The first big test of his mettle came almost immediately, during the Brexit debates in 2016, when he was reportedly told that, if he defied Cameron and backed Brexit, his political career would be over before it had even begun. 

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To his credit, he refused to buckle, explaining that “this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for our country to take back control of its destiny,” and that the UK would be “freer, fairer and more prosperous outside the European Union”.

By contrast, Liz Truss, who, to curry favor with her party’s hard right, now flaunts herself as an arch-Brexiteer, voted in favor of the UK remaining in the EU in 2016. Although it has been suggested that Truss, a former accountant, was a covert Eurosceptic all along, and did not want to upset Cameron, who brought her into his cabinet in 2014, her words speak for themselves. On February 20, 2016, she announced “I am backing remain as I believe it is in Britain’s economic interest and means we can focus on vital economic and social reform at home”. 

This was unequivocal, and her subsequent conversion to Brexit smacks not only of political convenience, but also of unabashed careerism. 

Her stance, however, paid dividends, and, once Theresa May, another Remainer, succeeded Cameron as Prime Minister, on July 13, 2016, Truss was appointed Secretary for Justice and Lord Chancellor, the first female to hold these posts. Sunak, meanwhile, had to wait until 2018 before May finally made him a junior minister, although, unlike Truss, he quickly distinguished himself. 

In her new role, one of Truss’ responsibilities was to safeguard the interests of the Judiciary, but, when the media accused the appeal judges of being “enemies of the people” over a Brexit judgment it disliked in 2016, Truss failed to spring to their defense, which they still resent. 

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As the former Chief Justice, Lord (Igor) Judge, has explained, Truss’ “failure to come to the defense of the Judiciary for nearly 48 hours – and her lukewarm response when she did – means if she were taken to court, she would likely be found to have acted unlawfully”. There were no tears when, after less than a year in office, Truss was moved to other duties.

It has, moreover, now emerged that Truss, while a student, was the president of the Oxford University Liberal Democrats. At the party’s annual conference, she even backed calls for the abolition of the monarchy, something anathema to most Britons. 

However, she soon realized there was little chance of furthering her political career within a minority party, and, when she graduated, she switched allegiance to the Conservative Party, a foretaste of her Brexit flip-flopping.   

One defining difference between Sunak and Truss concerns competence. Whereas Sunak is clearly the brighter of the two, he is regarded by those who know him best as “a safe pair of hands”.  By contrast, Truss is a political lightweight, whose missteps are legendary. 

When, for example, she visited Moscow in February, she told the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, to the British Ambassador’s horror, that the UK would never recognize the Rostov and Voronezh regions as Russian, unaware that they are integral parts of the Russian Federation. 

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It beggared belief that an ingenue like this should have been representing British interests abroad, and her claim to have misheard the question fooled nobody. Once, moreover, she was back in the UK, she again put her foot in it. 

When asked by the BBC if Britons could go to fight in Ukraine, she replied “Absolutely, if that’s what they want to do”, even though it is illegal for a Briton to take up arms in these circumstances.

Quite clearly, Truss is unsuited for high office, and her election would inevitably make it easier for a rejuvenated Labor Party, led by its increasingly credible leader, Keir Starmer, to reclaim power at the general election, scheduled for 2024. 

In order, however, to burnish her credentials, Truss, to general derision, has taken to aping Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, even reprising her iconic battle tank pose. Yet it is Sunak who epitomizes the Thatcherite ethic, or what he calls “commonsense Thatcherism”. 

Whereas Truss, oblivious to the country’s economic plight, including a gap in the budget of GBP 400 billion resulting from the COVID-19 crisis, says that, as a “freedom-loving Conservative”, she wants to slash taxes, Sunak realizes that prudent economic management requires more than fancy soundbites, and that people should not believe in “fairytales”. 

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Whereas Thatcher was a fiscal Conservative who believed firmly in a balanced budget, in keeping inflation under control, in people not getting something for nothing, and in living within one’s means, it is Sunak who is keeping her flag flying, as his more economically literate colleagues appreciate. 

The former Conservative Party leader, Michael Howard, for example, who served under Thatcher, has explained that she “certainly did not believe in cutting taxes in an irresponsible way”. He added that, because the national debt is already so high, “it would be foolish for us to embark on a tax-cutting spree”, as this would result in even higher debt as well more inflation (currently running at almost 10 percent, the highest in 40 years). 

Whereas one former Thatcher minister, Malcolm Rifkind, has explained that she “believed that tax cuts should be funded either by economic growth that was already producing more revenue, or by cuts in public spending”, another, Norman Lamont, has emphasized that she “strongly believed that cutting the deficit came before cutting taxes”. 

This, unfortunately, is lost on Truss, and it is no wonder that Sunak has branded her plans as “immoral”, given that they will push up inflation, increase mortgage rates and damage the economy. 

Even the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab, who knows both Sunak and Truss very well, says “Rishi’s values are our values”, and describes him as “a true Conservative, imbued with the values of enterprise, hard work and family”.   

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With each day that passes, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Truss is in thrall to hard right ideologues, and is prepared to say or do whatever it takes to get their backing. 

Since becoming Foreign Secretary in 2021, she has gone out of her way to curry favor with them by criticizing China at every opportunity, as well as by misrepresenting the situation in Hong Kong, although this has only helped her up to a point. 

While the likes of the former Conservative Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was sanctioned by China in 2021, are certainly now supporting her, her stock has fallen among thinking Conservatives who realize that mindless platitudes are no substitute for judgment or an appreciation of where Britain’s national interest really lies. 

Because she was never a true believer in Brexit, Truss has failed to appreciate that the UK did not break away from the EU simply to become a US vassal, a situation she has enthusiastically promoted.  

By contrast, Sunak, a true Brexiteer, has always been able to see the wider picture. His approach to China is more pragmatic, and he has called for “a complete sea change” in UK-China relations. This, of course, is what “Global Britain” is supposed to be about, not mindless Sinophobia. 

On July 1, 2021, when he delivered the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s annual Mansion House address, he emphasized that the UK must, as its access to EU markets declines, do more to boost China ties. In other words, he, like British business, wants improved trading relations with China, and he highlighted the need for “a mature and balanced relationship”.  

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Although, after Truss, such enlightenment is a breath of fresh air, she and her attack dogs have already hit back by accusing Sunak of being “soft on China”, a capital offense in the eyes of Duncan Smith and his ilk. 

In response to her dirty tricks, Sunak has now been obliged to harden his rhetoric on China and defend himself as best he can, even though this has meant joining Truss in the gutter and saying things about China he may subsequently regret. 

He has, however, tellingly pointed out that, when it suited her, Truss was friendly enough to Chinese interests in the past. 

As Education Minister in the Cameron government, for example, she “rolled out the red carpet” in terms of Confucius Institutes and otherwise. She believed, quite correctly, that her career would prosper if she kept on the right side of Cameron’s China-friendly “golden era” policy, and he duly promoted her.   

In the post-Brexit world, however, Britain must be able to take full advantage of all its opportunities, and nowhere holds out more promise these days than China. 

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After an era of mindless hostility, orchestrated by the US, everybody must hope that, when they vote next month, the Conservative Party’s members will have the good sense to choose as party leader a true statesman, and not a political pygmy. If nothing else, this will at least give their party a realistic prospect of winning the next general election.    

The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the Director of Public Prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.