Rishi Sunak 5th UK PM in 6 years: What's behind this game of musical chairs in Britain?

October 27, 2022 01:54 PM

Rishi Sunak is the 5th UK prime minister in just six years. He is, in fact, the third leader to enter London's 10 Downing Street in less than two months.

It wasn't always like this. Before this, the country saw three PMs within a year only twice, the last being in 1834. Before Gordon Brown of the Labour Party became the prime minister in 2007, the UK had only three prime ministers in about three decades.

Brown's successor was David Cameron of the Conservative Party. He had a long run (2010-16), and his exit started a game of musical chairs. But some of the origins of the present crisis in the United Kingdom go even further back.

In the 19th century, Britain was one of the wealthiest and most advanced economies. But the Second World War (1939-45) upended the global order, and there was a strong feeling that European nations must be tied together to shield themselves from the devastation suffered during those years.

This led to the birth of what is today known as the European Union (EU). The idea was for people, goods and services to be able to move freely across borders. After much delay, the UK, under Margaret Thatcher of the Conservative Party, finally joined the bloc of countries such as France and Germany in 1973 to arrest its economic slide.

However, the UK's decision to join the EU was divisive. In 1975, just two years after the grand union, the country had a referendum that resulted in a vote to stay with the bloc.

In the coming years, it became clear that the UK's presence in the EU didn't help, in the sense that other countries such as France and even the relatively new one, unified Germany, were seen growing at a faster rate, often at its expense.

However, when John Major became the prime minister in 1990 after Thatcher quit following a challenge to her leadership, he deepened UK-EU ties, despite internal divisions in the Conservative Party over the issue. His government almost fell when some of his party's lawmakers voted against him over the EU issue.

Unlike Thatcher, Major showed poor leadership skills. The economy was sliding. He resigned and got re-elected, only to see the Labour Party's return in 1997 after 18 years. Tony Blair was the PM. Hundreds of laws continued to come into being, not only during Blair's rule, but also under his successor Gordon Brown of the same party, to deepen the UK's union with the EU.

This was the time of the 2008 meltdown. The UK was feeling that EU membership did not deliver a prosperous economy. People also thought that the membership prevented the British government from delivering that prosperity. Then the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa pushed new waves of immigration into Europe and the UK, stretching its resources. New anxieties and insecurities were forming.

Prime Minister David Cameron of a sharply divided Conservative Party held a referendum on the UK leaving the EU in 2016. He supported continued membership following the success of the Leave vote. He resigned.

Prime Minister David Cameron of a sharply divided Conservative Party held a referendum on the UK leaving the EU in 2016. He supported continued membership following the success of the Leave vote. He resigned.

Under Johnson, the UK was also hit by Covid-induced disruptions and the Ukraine war sent energy bills soaring and strained the economy further.

Inflation was high, borrowing ballooned and the government struggled to pay pensions and hospital bills. Not only did Johnson fail to keep his promise of bringing investment, he also had moral failings. He faced a revolt from his Cabinet and finally quit earlier this year.

The Conservative Party continued to form revolving-door governments. Liz Truss had the challenges of a cost-of-living crisis, the Ukraine war and the after-effects of the pandemic. But her announcement of massive tax cuts and spending increases spooked markets. The pound crashed to a new low, the cost of borrowing and mortgage interest rates rose phenomenally and the pension and housing markets looked threatened.

She made U-turns, sacked officials and appointed new ones, but nothing worked. She didn't even look in charge before resigning in just 45 days, during which the Queen died too.

Now, Rishi Sunak from the same party is the prime minister whose priorities will include cleaning up the mess of Russia's Vladimir Putin's war. But Ukraine's is not the only conflict in which the UK has found itself embroiled, a trend that has hit its economy hard.

John Major committed British troops to the Gulf War in the 1990s. Tony Blair also backed the US and the British Armed Forces and participated in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars of the 2000s. Later, David Cameron intervened militarily in the First Libyan Civil War.

But all this while, something else has also shifted. In recent years, there has been an unusually high focus on the leaders and not on the party, both from the voting public and politicians in the UK.

Like on some previous occasions, the UK again looked more like a presidential form of government and not the parliamentary democracy that it is. But unlike in the past, in modern times, there has been no world war that caused the public and politicians to rally behind, say, Winston Churchill.

Also, the times are different. In the previous century, when Churchill could move a nation with his silver-tongue oratory, the press was limited. The government's control on information flow was greater. So, when Churchill spoke, he could create a passion even among the war-fatigued public and gun-wielding soldiers alike.

Now, social media exposes even the mightiest. Remember Johnson being fined for attending parties at Number 10 Downing Street while sending the nation into a Covid lockdown? Churchill could either have been wiser or managed to keep the news from breaking to the public.

Be that as it may, the greater focus on leaders meant prime ministers were held responsible every time things went wrong. As if the party didn't have an economic philosophy of its own. This ensured once a leader lost an election, she could not lead the party.

Somebody new, Rishi Sunak in the latest case, could enter Number 10. MPs became restlessly ambitious. Competition, often cut-throat and full of deceit, replaced convention. Grabbing power, through media, social media and political campaigns, became easier than it ever was.

Sunak became an MP only in 2015. At 42, he is the youngest UK prime minister in about 200 years. Before losing to Truss in the race to become the Conservative Party leader and the PM earlier this year, Sunak, then Boris Johnson's minister, fell out and quit and that became the starting point for the prime minister's ouster.

Sunak may have created history by becoming the first UK prime minister of colour. But he may also himself become history if he can't meet the challenges of fixing the economy, the labour crisis, the health service, addressing the post-Brexit complications and cleaning up the Ukraine war mess.

And the stakes are high not only for the UK but also for other regions. Russia's default in 1998 and Greece's debt crisis about a decade later have shown how what happens in one country can spark much broader turmoil.


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