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9:37pm 21/10/2022
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A week really is a long time in UK politics
By:Jitendra JOSHI / AFP

LONDON: Liz Truss came to 10 Downing Street vowing to be a “disruptor.” She U-turned on almost everything else, but that was one promise the convention-shredding Conservative leader delivered in full.

The prime minister’s short tenure climaxed in a seven-day period that was as disruptive as anything Britain has seen since 2016, when the country’s decision to quit the European Union upended the normal rules of politics.

“This isn’t ‘Love Island’, it’s the governance of the United Kingdom,” politics professor Tim Bale, a leading historian of the Conservatives, tweeted in reference to a trashy reality TV show.

“Brexit did destabilize the Conservative party, and has also given any government a problem as it’s reduced trade and growth,” Bale added in an interview with AFP.

“That means there’s far less money around to keep the promises they made in 2019. I don’t think anyone can wave a magic wand and fix Britain’s economic problems.

“But if you were picking someone who’s capable intellectually and in terms of communications, you’d have to consider Rishi Sunak as the top candidate,” he said, referring to the former finance minister whose warnings about Truss’s shock-and-awe program were borne out in gory detail.

Allies could only look on in pity after Truss’s missteps made the UK a more hazardous prospect for the international bond markets than Greece or Italy — even as Italy looks set to appoint a far-right leader as prime minister.

With friends like this

The markets’ verdict drove up borrowing costs for millions of Britons just as they contend with the worst cost-of-living crisis in generations. It had some pundits comparing the UK under Conservative rule since Brexit to a coup-prone banana republic.

“It is important that Great Britain regains political stability very quickly, and that is all I wish,” said French President Emmanuel Macron. Weeks earlier, Truss had refused to call him a “friend” to the UK rather than “foe”.

Picking needless fights was a hallmark of Truss’s record-setting premiership — record-setting only for its brevity, shorter even than George Canning’s in 1827. His excuse for serving only 118 days? He died in office.

The UK parliament’s interminable Brexit debates after 2016, Theresa May’s tortured premiership, and Boris Johnson’s three years in Downing Street had already left commentators reeling at what had become of the country.

But, in just 44 days, Truss found innovative ways to trash Britain’s reputation — and that of her own Tory party. Many of her own MPs were disgusted at the government’s antics in a parliamentary vote that broke the back of her leadership late on Wednesday.

The seven days began last Friday with Truss firing her finance minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, even though she had described him as her political best friend and “ideological soulmate.”

She followed that with a disastrous news conference, when her nervous glances under some withering lines of questioning got as much coverage as anything she actually said.

Over the weekend, Kwarteng’s successor Jeremy Hunt eviscerated Truss’s hard-charging economic program.

The lettuce won

Monday proved even worse, as Truss avoided Labour questioning about Kwarteng’s demise in the House of Commons. It is never a good look for a leader to declare — via a minister — that she is not “hiding under a desk.”

By Tuesday, as she convened a tense cabinet meeting, a fresh round of polling found that even the Tory members who backed her over Sunak had tired of Truss.

On Wednesday, Truss was declaring to the Commons that she was “a fighter and not a quitter.”

Glum faces on the Tory back benches showed no appetite for the fight. Hours later, interior minister Suella Braverman quit, delivering a blistering attack on Truss’s leadership failures as she left.

In the end, Truss’s MPs decided they would rather deal with the embarrassment of a second leadership election within months than endure the agony of collapsing poll ratings.

For Professor Bale, there is a premium now for Tories to opt for boring competence after the mendacious theatrics of Johnson and the “zealotry” of Truss.

Many commentators meanwhile are taking refuge in black humor, after the Daily Star newspaper streamed an online feed of a lettuce to see whether the leafy vegetable or Truss’s tenure would expire first.

Journalist Jane Merrick tweeted: “When a lettuce outlasts a Prime Minister, we have truly reached the endive days.”

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