3 Prime Ministers in 7 weeks: What’s going on in the U.K.?

On Oct. 20, British Prime Minister (PM) Liz Truss announced her resignation. Truss had been appointed only 45 days earlier, making her by far the shortest-ever serving prime minister.

By Oct. 25, Rishi Sunak was appointed in her place, making him the U.K.’s third prime minister in just seven weeks. Truss’ tenure was remarkable from start to finish, with unusual circumstances marking both its start and end. Truss’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, was pushed out of government by his own party after his numerous scandals finally caught up with him, and Truss was failed by her own undercooked economic plan. This revolving door of Conservative leaders is taking place during an increasingly dire cost-of-living crisis.

The crisis, which began in 2021, is spreading across all sectors of the economy. Energy costs are skyrocketing, the National Health Service is overwhelmed, and inflation is at its highest in decades. As a result, twice the number of U.K. households are now living with little or no discretionary income (personal income minus taxes). According to Asda Income Tracker data, the percentage grew from 20 to 40 in just nine months. Unsurprisingly, this crisis is hitting lower-income Brits the hardest. In August, the average household’s disposable income fell by 129 pounds ($149) per month, while the highest-income quintile actually saw their disposable income increase.

Back in 2019, the Conservatives enjoyed a landslide victory when Johnson was elected to the head office, but voter confidence in the party has been plummeting over the three years since. Many Conservative voters’ Brexit-fueled enthusiasm is long gone, tempered by Johnson’s string of controversy and the party’s apparent inability to improve economic conditions.

When a U.K. prime minister leaves office mid-term, their party (the dominant party in Parliament) must appoint someone new. After Johnson’s resignation, the two Conservative frontrunners for PM were Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Truss was seen as the “Johnson legacy” candidate — someone who would continue his policy plans (hopefully with less controversy). Sunak’s campaign was relatively moderate, at least by Conservative standards, and the deviation from Johnson led some Conservatives to see him as a "traitor". When the vote went to the public, party members selected Truss by 18 points, or 20,000 votes, though Conservatives expected an even wider margin.

Truss is the third woman prime minister following Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, both of whom were also Conservatives. Notably, many of Truss’s stated goals were reminiscent of Thatcher’s signature neoliberal policies back in the 1980s. During the bitter campaign against Sunak, Truss promised a “bold plan” to boost the economy by cutting taxes.

Truss enjoyed strong public approval upon coming to office, but it quickly diminished — wilted, even. As The Economist said, her longevity equated to “roughly the shelf-life of a lettuce.”

Once in office, Truss wasted little time implementing her proposed policies. In fact, she went even further than what she promised in her campaign.

While Truss’s tax plan lived up to her “bold” promise, it quickly became clear that when she promised “tax cuts,” she did not mean for the working class. Instead, the cut was to the top rate of income tax, and briefings said that the government may announce even more. As NPR put it, “they were doubling down. They were really going for it.”

Unfortunately for the U.K., the aggressive cuts had the opposite of their intended effect, and it was revealed that they were not fully thought out before implementation. Truss had failed to submit the plan to the Independent Budget Office, meant to advise on economic policy, and “there was not really a plan for how to pay for any of [the tax cuts or spending].” In addition to the cuts, Truss had proposed government spending that would give money to people and businesses, which is the opposite of what is usually advised to fight inflation. Before the policies were even implemented, economists questioned their efficacy.

So once the policies rolled out, panic ensued everywhere from global investors to British members of parliament. Gary Gibbon, political editor for the U.K.’s Channel 4 News, remarked on “how many MPs I came across who were looking at their phones and looking at graph lines. And they were the graph lines that showed you the pound sliding against the dollar, the graph lines that showed you the cost of government borrowing going up.” Trussonomics had failed.

The parallels between Truss and Thatcher don’t end at their campaign promises — back in July, inflation rose above 10% for the first time in 40 years, and in September the British pound reached its lowest value against the U.S. dollar since 1985. Both records were previously set amid Thatcher’s three consecutive terms from 1979-90. Unfortunately for Truss, though, she will not go down in history with the reverence afforded to Thatcher. Instead of being remembered on par with The Iron Lady, she has already been dubbed “The Iceberg Lady” (an apparent reference to her wilting popularity).

As the economy tanked, the finance minister announced that the country would abandon the tax plan, but even that was not enough to save Truss. Almost as soon as she arrived, she had resigned, admitting that she could not deliver what she had promised — though she believed in her economic strategy until the bitter end. In her resignation speech, Truss pointed to Putin’s war in Ukraine and the U.K.’s long-term “low economic growth.” Instead of admitting any fault in the underlying strategy or even the failed rollout of her plan, Truss cited the nebulous “situation” as the problem: “I recognize that though, given the situation, I cannot deliver the mandate on which I was elected by the Conservative Party.”

As Truss stepped down, the process for selecting another prime minister began. In order to progress to the next round of the PM race, any candidate nominated by the majority party must receive at least 100 votes from that party’s members of Parliament. If more than one candidate reaches 100 votes, the party will first cast “indicative” votes to see if there is a clear leader, and if the results are inconclusive, the winner is selected by an online vote of party members.

All this leads to the current prime minister: Rishi Sunak. Sunak seemed to be the obvious choice after being the previous runner-up, but his path to office was almost blocked by a surprising opponent: Boris Johnson. That’s right — the disgraced prime minister who had not even been out of office for two months. In a move similar to Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential run, Johnson decided to run again. He campaigned briefly before dropping out two days ahead of Sunak’s appointment.

Sunak previously served as minister of finance under Johnson until July of this year, when he resigned amid the “Partygate” scandal. Some Conservatives now consider Sunak a traitor against Johnson and the party, because his resignation seemed to mark the beginning of the end for Johnson’s tenure.

The third opponent in the Conservative Party race was Penny Mordaunt, a cabinet minister looking to take her political career to the next level. Mordaunt’s colleagues encouraged her to run as a “fresh start” for the U.K., while some viewed her as a compromise candidate for those who did not want to vote for Sunak or Johnson. Mordaunt’s poll numbers were low throughout the race, and she dropped out before the required deadline, leaving Sunak as the only candidate.

Sunak became the first person of South Asian descent, the first Hindu, and the youngest person to ever hold the office. Another notable first — Sunak’s appointment marks the first time that the prime minister’s net worth is greater than that of the crown.

Some see Sunak as out of touch with the average working-class Briton. Sunak is one of the U.K.’s wealthiest politicians, with an impressive (and expensive) education. He previously worked at Goldman Sachs, and is married to a tech heiress. Together, their net worth is estimated to be $827 million. During his summer campaign, his history became an obstacle when a video clip from a 2007 BBC documentary resurfaced in which Sunak suggested that he does not have any “working-class friends,” in addition to his wife, Akshata Murty’s, alleged tax evasion. Basically, he became the latest poster boy for out-of-touch Conservative politicians. Although since the prime ministerial race is in the hands of his own party, this controversy did not significantly harm his chances.

In the eyes of his supporters, Sunak is a reliable economic influence. Partly because of his strong background in finance, and largely bolstered by his correct predictions that Truss’s “fairy tale” economics would backfire.

While in many ways Sunak aligns with the usual Conservative agenda, he has made some notable waves. After George Floyd’s murder in 2020, then-PM Johnson said that he does not believe the U.K. is a racist country, but Sunak responded on Twitter by sharing the hardships his family faced as immigrants to Britain, saying: “As a British Asian of course I know that racism exists in this country.” Sunak has also publicized his Hindu faith, and swore in to the office of PM on the Bhagavad Gita, a revered Hindu text.

Seeing as Sunak was only appointed this week, we will all have to wait and see how his term plays out. He is admittedly in quite a tough situation — if Johnson left an economic garbage fire in his wake, Truss has poured gasoline on it. Will Sunak last, or will he spoil like fresh produce? Only time will tell.