The heavyweights of the British Conservative Party like to say that their members constitute “the most sophisticated electorate in the world”. The fact that Prime Ministers can be elected solely by the 150,000 members of the Tory party is certainly one of the singularities of British democracy.
Unlike 2019, when Boris Johnson was always a heavy favorite to win the support of party loyalists, this time around there is no clear favourite.
Former finance minister Rishi Sunak enjoys greater support among the general public, as well as among Tory MPs. Foreign Minister Liz Truss currently has a short head start among members of the Conservative party.
After a sluggish start to the campaign, Liz Truss regained support as other candidates from the party’s right were eliminated, following a coordinated campaign in the right-wing media by her allies aimed at weakening her rival Penny Mordaunt.
Pundits and party members expect a bitter and personal campaign filled with dirty tricks.
Mr. Sunak accused Ms. Truss of practicing a “fairy tale economy” after she promised tax cuts and referred to her past as a member of the pro-European Liberal Democrat party.
Ms Truss, meanwhile, attacked Mr Sunak’s privileged upbringing and called him a socialist for raising taxes to reduce the budget deficit created by Covid-19-related spending.
Mr Sunak’s leadership prospects were nearly damaged by revelations that his wife had applied for non-resident tax status to avoid paying UK tax even though he was finance minister. It can therefore be expected that Ms. Truss’ team will exploit this situation in the coming weeks.
The Brexit referendum continues to be a fundamental dividing line in British politics, and particularly within the Conservative Party.
Mr Sunak campaigned for Brexit, while Ms Truss, although always tight-lipped on the subject, was in favor of keeping the country in the EU. Yet it was she who won the support of the most fiercely Eurosceptic group of conservative parliamentarians, the European Research Group (ERG).
After three years of Mr Johnson’s government, the question is what either of the two candidates could mean for EU-UK relations. These relations were weakened first by the process of withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, then by a series of disputes concerning the implementation of the new trade agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom and the protocol on Northern Ireland.
In terms of concrete measures, neither Ms Truss nor Mr Sunak seem to want to bring the UK closer to Brussels.
Ms Truss has kept tabs on the Tory leadership race for most of the year and observers believe that is part of why she was behind the bill to override protocol on Northern Ireland which is currently the subject of a debate in the British Parliament. The Protocol Bill is popular with Brexit supporters and it seems almost certain that it will pass in the fall.
Moreover, once Prime Minister, Mrs. Truss should return the favor and satisfy her supporters, the ERB and the conservative right.
Since 2016, Ms Truss has quickly become a staunch supporter of Brexit and, as Secretary of State for International Trade between 2019 and 2021, she was responsible for negotiating the transposition of EU trade agreements with countries third parties in UK law.
Having done most of the work on UK trade pacts with Australia and New Zealand, deals with the US and Pacific Rim states are likely to be a priority for her. Mr Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ project, whose political significance has never matched his rhetoric, could be revived under Mrs Truss’s presidency.
It is Mr Sunak, however, whose initial political promises seem most likely to drive the UK away from the EU.
He pledged to reform all remaining EU laws that impose unnecessary red tape and hinder business, by the next general election. In reality, these regulations are unlikely to be burned alive.
Indeed, defining what is not necessary — the REACH regulation on chemicals imposes administrative burdens but is essential for the protection of human health, for example — is a difficult task and in each case it would be necessary to mobilize the trade unions, business leaders or both.
This helps explain why such massive deregulation is a promise that three successive Conservative Prime Ministers made and then quietly abandoned.
A promise that is more likely to be kept is Mr Sunak’s to scrap financial services regulations, most of which were passed by the EU in the wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis. The objective is to initiate a growth of the financial sector similar to that observed in the 1980s, after the ” big Bang “ of the deregulation of Margaret Thatcher’s government.
The United Kingdom would thus be closer to a “Singapore of the North Sea”to which many Brexit supporters have always aspired.
At the same time, his promise to drop the UK’s membership of the EU data protection regime, the GDPR, in favor of a less restrictive regime, would risk nullifying the “adequacy agreement” allowing a continuous flow of data between the UK and the EU.
Relations between Brussels and London have been characterized by a lack of trust, often stemming from Mr Johnson’s ability to undo or simply renege on agreements.
His successor will not bring the UK closer to the EU in terms of policy – only a change of government can – but the tone, trust and good faith will likely be stronger under the new leadership.