LONDON — Replacing Boris Johnson was meant to let the U.K.’s ruling Conservatives move on from the chaos and distractions turning off voters.
Instead, a long leadership battle has exposed deep divisions in the ruling party and bolstered the sense of inertia at the heart of government. Senior Tories warn the combination of a “zombie” administration putting off decisions until Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak becomes prime minister on Sept. 6, as well as the vitriol between the rivals, is doing irreparable damage.
In a regular summer, with Parliament on recess and many Britons away on holiday, a policy vacuum would be unlikely to trigger alarms.
But times are not normal. The economy’s been battered by the pandemic, Brexit fallout continues, and Russia’s war in Ukraine has stoked inflation, leaving Britons facing an unprecedented hit on living standards.
The bad news has been building. First the Bank of England said inflation would top 13% and predicted the U.K. would endure a recession lasting more than a year. Then came a forecast that average household energy bills would exceed 5,000 pounds ($6,060) next year, and influential consumer finance commentator Martin Lewis warning of a “potential national financial cataclysm.”
“The scale of what’s coming down the road just doesn’t seem to be captured by the Conservative Party contest,” said Ben Houchen, Tory mayor of Tees Valley and a key figure in the party’s bid to hold onto the “red wall” areas of northern England it took from Labour in the 2019 election. “We are literally a zombie government, and there is a lot of nervousness in red wall communities and across the country at what they see as a black hole in terms of action.”
Along with other senior Tories, including Cabinet ministers and government officials, Houchen is worried that a toxic leadership contest and inaction on the cost of living is entrenching a narrative that the party is out of touch.
In many ways, the problem stems from how Johnson’s demise played out. Rather than stepping down immediately with a formal caretaker put in place, the prime minister is staying on until his successor is appointed — but agreed that his administration would not make any major fiscal decisions.
At the time, Johnson’s critics regarded that as an acceptable compromise that would prevent the government doing anything controversial that the next prime minister would be forced to own or discard. But one minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed frustration that it effectively tied the government’s hands on tackling the cost-of-living crisis.