The battle to be the next PM
At present, and for the foreseeable future Northern Ireland has no government. At the same time there is not really a functioning one at Westminster either.
The disgraced Boris Johnson remains in office until his successor is anointed and has undertaken not to commit to any significant policy in the meantime – which given his track record should not prove too difficult.
The most notable forays since losing office have been to scoot around in a fighter jet and to hold a second wedding reception which was hosted by a Tory donor.
His final legacy could well be implementation of a proposal drawn up by his Australian advisor Lynton Crosby’s staff to appoint up to 50 new Conservative to the House of Lords to ram contentious legislation, like unilateral changes to the Northern Ireland protocol, through parliament.
Meanwhile whilst the UK is gripped in crisis, we are left with a government otherwise on autopilot.
Johnson’s last desperate attempt to cling to power involved filling ministerial gaps by appointing whoever he could to fill the many vacancies caused by mass resignations.
One such was the NI’s new secretary of state Shailesh Vara , whose arrival sparked a row over whether or not he had asked aides if he would need a passport for a trip to Derry when he was a junior minister here.
This is what we have for governance whilst we cope with war, the great energy crisis prompted as a result of it, the cost of living crisis that threatens many thousands with destitution, the chaos of a mismanaged exit from the European union, workforce shortages, the looming climate crisis, political and corporate corruption and cronyism and the complex economic ramifications of recovering from the pandemic.
To compound this Johnson’s successor will be chosen by an electorate which is comically unrepresentative of the population.
Conservative members are predominantly elderly and wealthy and concentrated in England’s south east. Their views seem shaped by a reverence for Empire, the myth of English exceptionalism and a particular dislike of immigrants.
This peculiar demographic helps explain two matters which otherwise seem baffling: the first is how it has come to be that the race to succeed the discredited Johnson has come down to two alternatives: his former Chancellor and Foreign Secretary: the two most senior candidates in his regime and the two most strongly associated with it. One of them – Rishi Sunak - even shares with Johnson the distinction of having remained in office after being fined by police for breaching lockdown rules.
This hardly represents a clean break from the past. As cabinet ministers Sunak and Truss had collective responsibility and were able to help shape policy at their meetings. They cannot portray themselves as offering something new and fresh. Both remained in post, Truss to the very end and whilst Sunak’s resignation sparked the toppling of Johnson, it took a long time before his principles asserted themselves.
So who are we left with then? First, and favourite is Liz Truss. Former adviser Dominic Cummings is hardly the most charitable critic. However he describes her as “Mad-as-a-box-of-snakes” and a human hand grenade”
She was educated at Roundhay High in Leeds an affluent, leafy suburb. In 2020, the school received a World Class Schools Quality Mark, which requires an 'Outstanding' Ofsted assessment as well as further assessments.
Despite this Truss said during her campaign launch: “Many of the children I was at school with were let down by low expectations, poor educational standards and a lack of opportunity.”
Truss herself did not appear to do too badly – she went on to read PPE at Merton College, Oxford. Alumni of her old school are furious.
She has also developed a reputation for screeching U-turns. During her career, which began as a Liberal Democrat she has: advocated the abolition of the monarchy; argued for decriminalising cannabis; campaigned in favour of Remaining in the UK, endorsed austerity measures all of which policies she now disavows.
Sunak, in contrast is the wealthiest MP of all having married into the billionaire Murty family. He went to the exclusive public school Winchester. His wife Akshata had non dom status which exempted her from tax until it was exposed in the press . He also possessed a Green Card until last year, which entitled him to live in the USA.
As inflation gathered pace he showed empathy by those struggling by saying the food where he would most notice a price rise was bread, because “we have all different breads in my house”
Neither seem like dream candidates for the task.
The second matter concerns the strange nature of the leadership debate which so obviously is more reflective of the concerns of the average golf club bore than of the broader electorate.
Sunak is asserting his devotion to Thatcherism by adopting discredited economics from the 1980s, Truss by dressing up as her.
And as the contest has unfolded the candidates have tried to outbid one another by adopting increasingly outlandish and ridiculous policies, detailed costings of which, it goes without saying, are thin on the ground.
Those already reeling from Sunak’s notion that those who vilify the UK should be sent to re-education camps were soon coming to terms with Truss’s apparent idea that Turkey should join Rwanda as a suitable place for asylum seekers.
On Monday Truss went a step too far announcing her intention to slash £8.8bn from public sector pay outside London. Quite how she calculated the figure was not explained, neither was the impact of this genius idea on the central policy plank of levelling up. In any event the following day she back-tracked and her supporter Brandon Lewis adopted a technique from the Johnson playbook denying she had made such a call. This would have mystified whoever drafted the press release that confirmed her intent.
Truss also appears oblivious to the threat her government poses to the union. Otherwise she might have produced a smarter response than this when asked to explain her response to SNP demands for a second referendum on Scottish independence, calling Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon "an attention seeker" and saying the “best thing to do is to ignore her”.
This might have provoked guffaws from the English golf club types in her audience, but it is not hard to imagine the reaction in Scotland.
Yet she remains the firm favourite to be the next prime minister.
Such are the candidates to replace Boris Johnson. One is unsuitable to lead a country where so many now have so little. The alternative is someone who appears to believe in nothing save the importance of promoting herself and appears terrifyingly unpredictable. The decision rests with a tiny and hugely unrepresentative electorate which, based on the debate to date, appears completely out of touch with the concerns of the rest of us.
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