Race to the top - GulfToday

Race to the top

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Liz Truss (left) and Rishi Sunak.

Liz Truss entered the British Conservative Party leadership contest with a solid lead of 24 points over challenger Rishi Sunak although policy differences between the two are not dramatic.

The chief difference is over taxation. Truss seeks to lower taxation and finance programmes with borrowing which will, in the long-run be paid or written off. Sunak seeks to tackle inflation and fund National Health and other essential programmes before cutting taxes. Both are committed to achieving Britain’s climate change goal of reaching zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 but disagree on how to do this. Both insist on limiting immigration into Britain and support the cruel plan to deport illegal migrants to Rwanda. Both have pledged to make changes in Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU. Both reject a new referendum for Scottish independence.

The Conservative leadership line-up was the most diverse ever for any British political party. Four of the eight initial candidates who stood came from Britain’s Asian and black communities although the country’s population is 87 per cent white, six per cent Asian and three per cent black. Also, there were four men and four women.

Following a month of campaigning, the party’s 160,000 rank and file will choose between the two survivors of polling among Conservative members of parliament. The contest is likely to be determined by attitudes among Conservative party loyalists rather than policies of the candidates. The issue is whether the Conservative base is more racist than misogynistic.  Sunak is the first senior politician of Indian descent to be up for the top job while Truss is the third woman to stand. Two female predecessors secured the top job.

The “glass ceiling” preventing women from reaching the prime ministership was broken by Margaret Thatcher in 1979. She served until 1990 while Theresa May held the post from 2016-2019 when she was ousted by recently resigned Boris Johnson.

Thatcher, known as the “Iron Lady,” was the longest serving prime minister of the 20th century. She fell afoul of the electorate due to her advocacy of a flat rate tax on all members of local communities and her Euroscepticism.

May — who was no “Iron Lady” — followed David Cameron after the hotly contested 2016 referendum that mandated Britain’s exit (Brexit) from the European Union (EU), a policy she, like Cameron, opposed. Vowing to adhere to the pro-Brexit vote, May was brought down by her failure to secure support from her party to the withdrawal agreement on offer.

Boris Johnson won the Conservative leadership/prime ministership election and after a bitter, divisive struggle achieved a Brexit deal which remains controversial. The deal is now under review because Britain has failed to secure gains widely expected by Brexiters. Blighted expectations, Johnson’s inconsistent handling of the covid pandemic, and his mendacity

prompted Sunak and other key ministers to desert him, forcing him to step down. Truss stuck with Johnson and has the backing of his supporters in the party while Sunak is reviled by them.  

As his successor will have to tackle Johnson’s complicated legacy, Sunak — who is seen as more capable than Truss — could overtake her lead if the Conservative grassroots opt for the first Asian.

Sunak was born in 1980 to Hindu Indian parents who had joined the migration of Asians from Kenya and other East African countries following independence. He read philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford and earned his master’s degree in business from Stanford University in the US. He is married to Akshata Narayan Murty, a British-based Indian fashion designer and independently wealthy daughter of N. R. Narayana Murthy, a billionaire founder of the Indian IT company Infosys. Sunak’s wealth, estimated at £730 million ($874 million) has been a controversial issue.

This was compounded when media leaked the fact that his wife, who enjoyed non-domicile status, Paid no tax on £1.2 billion ($1.4 billion) earned outside the UK. Early this year she consented to submit to the British tax authorities.

Before entering politics in 2014, Sunak worked as an investment banker and in hedge fund management firms. He was elected to parliament in 2015, backed Brexit, and was re-elected in 2017, supported Johnson’s bid for party leadership in 2019, and re-elected that year.  He was appointed chief secretary to the treasury in 2019 and became chancellor of the exchequer in 2020.

Sunak provided billions in government money to keep people and businesses afloat during the pandemic by paying the salaries of millions of workers when they were temporarily laid off. This made him most popular member of the government but not necessarily the most electable candidate for Tory leadership.

Born in 1975 to deeply committed leftist parents, Truss is political chameleon who began activism at Oxford as a Liberal Democrat and migrated to the Conservatives. After graduation she joined Shell and qualified as a chartered management consultant. She rose to  the post of economic manager at Cable and Wireless before failing to win a seat in parliament in two elections. She succeeded in the third in 2010 and served without distinction in education, environment, treasury,

Trade and justice posts before being appointed foreign secretary. Truss voted to remain in the EU, like ex-Prime Minister David Cameron, who opted for a vote in the belief the British public would choose to stay in the EU.

Whoever wins will be obliged to focus primarily on Britain’s domestic problems — including those that are a consequence of Brexit — as well as Britain’s relationship with the EU, its largest trading partner.   

On the domestic front, the new British premier will be compelled to tackle urgently the staffing crisis in the National Health system which is short of 50,000 nurses and 12,000 doctors. The Conservatives have made recruitment all the more difficult by reducing medics from the EU and making immigration from Asian and African countries difficult. Sunak seeks to raise health levies while Truss vows to reduce them.

On the global front, Britain must turn its attention to combatting climate change due to 40 degree Celsius temperatures and heat-related fires in London and elsewhere by adopting policies to reduce gas emissions. Sunak has called for Britain to become “energy independent” but seeks to retain 2014 restrictions on wind turbines which can reduce greenhouse gases. Truss seeks to scrap the ‘green levy,’ which funds projects to cut carbon from the energy supply, but proposes to boost the amount of natural gas being extracted from the North Sea.

Neither is likely to follow Johnson’s pro-active involvement in the Ukraine crisis which did not serve him, Britain, and the world well.

Photo: TNS

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