Tag Archives: UK government

Prime Minister Truss or Sunak and the Curse of the Takeover Prime Minister

Dr Ben Worthy, Director of the MSc in Government, Policy and Politics, shares his analysis on the prospects and promises of the candidates in the running to be the next Conservative Party leader.   

One thing we can say for certain is that our next Prime Minister, whether Truss or Sunak, will be a takeover leader. This means that they get to Downing Street through internal party procedures rather than a general election. But is there a curse for ‘takeover’ Prime Ministers 

Most Prime Ministers who take over from another leader rather than win an election have short, unhappy times in office. To give you a flavour, here’s the list of post-war takeovers: 

  • Anthony Eden (1955–57) 
  • Harold Macmillan (1957–63) 
  • Alec Douglas-Home (1963–64) 
  • James Callaghan (1976–79) 
  • John Major (1990–97) 
  • Gordon Brown (2007–10) 
  • Theresa May (2016–2019) 
  • Boris Johnson (2019-2022) 

With probably one exception, this is not a list of successful or happy Prime Ministers. In fact, it looks pretty much like a list of failed leaders, with at least one name that should make you shout ‘who?’ As you can see, most didn’t spend long in Downing Street and most struggled to get past the three-year mark, with only Macmillan and Major as exceptions.  

So why is it cursed? It’s partly because a leader ‘taking over’ doesn’t get the ‘bounce’ or legitimacy from winning an election. It’s also because the reason you are there. A takeover is because there’s been some sort of crisis, normally one that was big or severe enough to make your predecessor resign. This means that often, you inherit a crisis and a divided party. Prime Minister Sunak or Truss will lead a party divided over the economy, and the rather poisonous legacy of Boris Johnson. The leadership debates seem to be making it worse, as some Conservatives have made clear 

As well as the curse, our new Prime Minister faces huge challenges and expectations. As has been clear in the debates so far, the public expect the Prime Minister to do something about the many crises that are facing the UK, from the cost of living and inflation to the buckling of public services and threat of climate change which has appeared in our homes and on our doorsteps in a way that makes it hard to deny. On top of this there is Covid, which has not gone away, and Brexit, which is continuing to cause ruptures everywhere from Dover to Belfast. You can see an expert analysis by Full Fact, which looks at whether the candidates’ pledges will solve the problems we face. 

Conservative MPs and members have another, even higher hope, which is that the new leader can win an election. The UK must dissolve Parliament for a General Election by 17 December 2024 at the very latest, though the new Prime Minister can call one any time before, thanks to Johnson abolishing the Fixed Term Parliament Act. This power is not to be sniffed at, and can be worth 5 points in an election 

But for a takeover Prime Minister to win an election is a tall order. Boris Johnson did, of course, in 2019 and John Major did in 1992. Before that it was Harold Macmillan, way back in 1959, when he famously told a heckler “you’ve never had it so good” (a phrase Liz Truss has repeated).  

The numbers seem against our new PM repeating this trick, as neither Truss or Sunak are polling well. As of July 2022, Labour hold an 11 point lead over the Conservative party. Although Sunak has flagged up a YouGov poll showing he has the ‘edge’ over Truss in attracting swing voters, it’s only a 2 point difference, and both are rather far behind Keir Starmer. As YouGov explains “neither can be characterised as popular.” This is made worse by the fierce leadership debates, which have handed Labour large amounts of pledges and quotes to use back at whoever wins.  

Hovering in the background is the fact that both Truss and Sunak were major figures in Johnson’s government and are connected to his reputation and legacy. Truss described herself as a Johnson ‘loyalist’ while Sunak was fined for attending a ‘Partygate’ party. To my disappointment, but not my surprise, both candidates have vowed to continue Johnson’s bizarre immigration policy, which was condemned by the UN Refugee agency.  Both leaders could find a sulking Johnson could do a great deal of damage to them, whether on the backbenches or back writing newspaper columns.  

So, what can they do? Takeovers can succeed by pretending to be different, and representing a new start, as John Major did after Thatcher in 1990. But with little money and room for manoeuvre, what else can they do? 

One option is to go for eye catching policies. Truss has committed to a new law against Street Harassment (which, conveniently, Johnson rejected), while Sunak has called to make similar activities illegal and promised a women’s manifesto.  

Another option is to do something to create distance from their predecessor. As the Full Fact report points out, “one of the defining legacies of Boris Johnson’s premiership has been its bulldozing of political trust and erosion of citizens’ faith in democratic politics and politicians.” This YouGov poll of Conservative members found “honest/integrity” to be the two most desirable traits in their new leader.  

My guess is they’ll opt for some sort of transparency, which can actually help create a sense of newness and distance at the same time. Governments often promise openness to show they are ‘better’ than whoever went before. Tony Blair offered a Freedom of Information Act in 1997 and David Cameron, all sorts of ‘open data’ on government spending. It could be something relatively small. Truss has already suggested new data on police performance and both leaders have promised to publish their own tax returns. They could promise to open up ministerial diaries, something, conveniently, Boris Johnson has refused to do. In an effort to seem less corrupt, and clean the system, they could publish more systematic data about lobbying or Ministers’ or MPs’ interests. The new Prime Minister could even commit to a new ethics regime, or embrace an inquiry, perhaps even borrowing Labour’s idea for a new ‘super watchdog’ Ethics and Integrity Commission to watch over lobbying and Ministers interests. 

This could create distance and be a symbol they’ll be ‘different’… but it won’t be enough to stop the curse 

References:  

Worthy, B. (2016). Ending in failure? The performance of ‘takeover’ prime ministers 1916–2016. The Political Quarterly, 87(4), 509-517. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/1467-923X.12311  

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From shades of Gray to a confidence vote: three things we know about Boris Johnson

Yesterday saw UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson narrowly surviving a vote of confidence by Conservative MPs. Senior Lecturer in Politics, Dr Ben Worthy analyses the findings of the Sue Gray Report and gives his predictions for the future of Boris Johnson in Downing Street.  

There were parties  

The Gray report finally confirms that regular parties were held in Downing Street. This is simple but important. They weren’t accidental, or ‘cake ambushes’ taking the poor PM by surprise. Police investigated a total of twelve parties, with a further four left uninvestigated. The parties were organised, premeditated, and put together in advance, while the rest of the UK was in severe lockdown so stringent that funerals couldn’t be held, and relatives couldn’t visit loved ones in hospital. As the report put it bluntly: ‘It is important to remember the stringency of the public health regulations in force in England over the relevant periods and that criminal sanctions were applied to many found to be in breach of them’. What was fine for Downing Street, resulted in a fine for others.   

It shouldn’t need saying, of course. But the truth is important. Most Prime Ministers, and most politicians, are ‘economical with the truth’. But more than most, Prime Minister Johnson’s career has been built on what Nixon called ‘things that later turned out to be untrue’, from the £350 million promises written on a bus to the denial of lockdown parties. The first question on his recent Mumsnet interview was “Why should we believe anything you say when it’s been proven you’re a habitual liar?” A website has collated more examples of lies from Boris Johnson. Even his biography of Churchill was littered with ‘misunderstandings’, including that the Germans captured Stalingrad 

Amid the fog of untruth and evasions, the report sets out what happened, when and where, with photos and evidence.  Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly depending on how cynical you are, allegations of more parties have emerged since the report. As Marina Hyde, Guardian columnist, always points out, with Boris Johnson there’s always more.   

They knew they were wrong  

One of the more astonishing parts of the report is how much of the wrongdoing was recorded. What was written showed that many participating knew it was wrong. Again, there were no accidental parties but instead, instructions to ‘bring your own booze’. The report shows that someone close to the Prime Minister, warned fellow party goers:  

‘Just to flag that the press conference will probably be finishing around that time, so it would be helpful if people can be mindful of that as speakers and cameras are leaving, not walking around waving bottles of wine etc.’  

The individual went on to write: ‘Best of luck with a complete nonstory but better than them focusing on our drinks (which we seem to have got away with).’  

Perhaps the hardest parts of the report are the details of the treatment received by those who pointed out what they were doing was wrong. In the report, Gray writes: ‘I was made aware of multiple examples of a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff. This was unacceptable.’ Though there are no details, The Sun has reported how one security guard was mocked for pointing it out and cleaners were laughed at as they cleared up the mess. One image that stands out, is of staff, the days after the many nights before, scrubbing post-party wine stains after travelling across lockdown London.   

Conservative MPs are not happy  

If Conservative MPs were surprised by the Gray report, many were silent for some time after. In the 24 hours after its release, many thought that no news was good news, and a sign that Johnson was out of trouble. But we now know the quiet was more ominous, with MPs weighing up options. In the following days there was a steady uptick in letters to the 1922 committee which triggered a vote of confidence.  

Some Conservative MPs were genuinely outraged. Paul Holmes, who resigned from the government, spoke of his ‘distress’ at a ‘toxic culture’ in Downing Street. Others, depending on your view, may be more cunning or realistic; even before Partygate, Johnson had slowly become an electoral liability. He is now a vote loser not a vote winner.    

Already nervous Conservative MPs know that, because of the Gray report, every leaflet from a Labour, Liberal Democrat or Green opponent will feature a photo of Boris Johnson drinking, which they will have to defend or distance themselves from. This is at a time when a full 59% of the public believe he should resign (though not many think he will). One analyst has worked out that ten recent letter submitters are in vulnerable seats at greatest risk to the Lib Dems. Over in Wakefield, where there is a by-election this month, Labour are twenty points ahead, with the main reason for voters switching, according to one pollster, is ‘Boris Johnson tried to cover up partygate, and lied to the public’.  

Boris Johnson still isn’t safe  

On Monday 6 June, Johnson finally faced a confidence vote which he won but, it must be said, won badly, with 40% of his own MPs voting to remove him. More Conservative MPs voted against him than voted against Theresa May in 2018, and she lasted only a few more months in power afterwards. This leaves his leadership in the worst possible position, still in post but with almost half of his own party against him.   

Boris Johnson is now in very serious trouble, and his time in Downing Street can probably be measured in months, if not weeks. His MPs, his party and the public are deeply unhappy. The details and images from the report may mark the end of Johnson’s time in Downing Street. Whatever happens next, the Sue Gray report will be a defining document of Johnson’s premiership, and a symbol of what went wrong.     

Ben Worthy is the Director of the MSc in Government, Policy and Politics at Birkbeck. 

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The missed opportunity of the National Food Strategy

Dr Jason Edwards, Lecturer in the Department of Politics, shares his opinion on the National Food Strategy, a report released last week. It’s the first independent review of England’s entire food system for 75 years, and it makes recommendations for the government, which has promised to respond formally within six months.

The publication of the much-heralded independent review of the National Food Strategy – the so-called ‘Dimbleby Report’, named after its author, the food entrepreneur and writer Henry Dimbleby – marks an important moment for food policy and politics.

The report is divided into a consideration of the effects of the food system on health and the environment. The health question is centred on the problem of what Dimbleby calls the ‘Junk Food Cycle’. He sees it as a central failure of the food system, promoting a poor diet with disastrous consequences for public health, in particular the epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes. The cycle begins with our appetites for highly calorific food being preyed upon by the junk food industry, which churns out ultra-processed foods containing very high levels of sugar, salt, and fat. Market competition means that any reduction in the levels of these (unconsciously) desired ingredients in food products would lead to loss, and so food production companies have become involved in an arms race resulting in the proliferation of junk food. The more this junk food becomes embedded in the culture, the more it has increased appetites for it, both physiologically and psychologically.

Dimbleby’s solution is to break the cycle by imposing a wholesale tax of £3 per kilo on sugar and £6 per kilo on salt. The report headlines this proposal, and it has been the main focus of the media coverage. But the immediate response of the government to the idea of a sugar and salt tax has been, at best, lukewarm. That seems like an anticipation of the picking apart of the report’s proposals by corporate lobbyists that will inevitably come.

Dimbleby is probably right that the imposition of these taxes would have the desirable effect of reducing the consumption of foods harmful to human health. But the issue is with the whole approach of the report and how likely it is to secure the kind of policy changes required to deal with the deep-seated problems that Dimbleby rightly attributes to systemic features of food production and consumption. These problems cannot be resolved without raising questions about power, ownership, and control in the food system, yet Dimbleby skirts over these.

Dimbleby rejects the belief in de-regulated food markets that occupies the Conservative backbenches and some of the chairs at Cabinet. Nonetheless, he does not escape from the market’s view of food as at base a commodity designed to satisfy the biological appetites of the consumer. Here it is clear that Dimbleby has fallen under the spell of the Behavioural Insights team, popularly known as the ‘Nudge Unit’, established in the Cabinet Office in 2010 to apply behavioural science to public policy. What they are reasonably good at is predicting behaviour where a simple and clear instrumental choice is on offer. But, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, when it comes to patterns of activity that involve complex, strategic choices with unclear outcomes, they are at sea. Diet is such a pattern of activity, not a set of discrete instrumental choices. It does not boil down to the selections we make at the snacks shelf in the supermarket or the counter at Leon.

Dimbleby is right to argue that we should be wary of solutions to food inequality and poor diet that shift the responsibility to the individual, emphasising personal food knowledge, cooking skills, or commitment to exercise (which has little impact on weight loss anyway). This leaves the door open to those who all-too eagerly and loudly blame the poor for their poverty. But raising questions about how people could and would act under very different conditions of choice is neither to individualise responsibility nor to renounce the necessarily systemic setting of our food choices. The failure to pose these questions is the principal disappointment of the report. To be fair, it does make a number of recommendations about changing the circumstances in which we make our food choices, such as the Eat and Learn initiative for schools that encourages food education from early years. But more generally there is silence in the report on questions of citizen involvement in the food system. At a time when local councils are selling off allotment sites to fund ‘essential’ local services, there isn’t a single mention of the availability of land for small horticulture, funding for cooperative local food-growing schemes, or the provision of public spaces for common cooking and eating. In short, on these crucial questions of food citizenship, Dimbleby simply has nothing to say. The report needed to question the very foundations of the food system: far from doing this, it merely asks for a reformulation of its parts.

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We need to learn the lessons from Erasmus+ to make sure Turing is an improvement

Since the Brexit deal came into force at the beginning of the year, the UK is no longer part of the Erasmus+ programme. Instead, the government is setting up the Turing scheme to fund students to study abroad. Professor Kevin Ibeh, Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) and Professor of Marketing and International Business, examines the Turing scheme and areas the government needs to turn its attention to in this blog. 

Professor Kevin Ibeh

For the UK to remain a global player, we must be able to provide our citizens with an appreciation of the wider world and help the world to understand us. To an extent, the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme helped to facilitate this by offering thousands of students the chance to study in Europe and beyond, while giving Europeans the chance to study in Britain.

Since the Brexit deal came into force at the beginning of the year, the UK is no longer part of the Erasmus+ programme. Instead, the government is setting up the Turing scheme to fund students to study abroad.

If this is to succeed, it is important to learn the lessons from Erasmus+, both regarding what worked and what didn’t. To improve on the opportunities that the Erasmus+ programme provided for both outgoing and incoming students, the government must turn its attention to a number of issues.

First, the forthcoming spending review should increase the programme’s budget, which currently stands at £100 million for its first year. This is a creditable sum, given the adverse economic climate, but the government should be aiming to match the nearly £130 million that the UK received in Erasmus+ grants in 2019. More important still, the Turing scheme needs a multi-year funding settlement.

Second, while the Turing scheme has a welcome focus on increasing participation among students from disadvantaged backgrounds, this could be hindered by a lack of reciprocal fee waivers.

Under Erasmus+, students paid fees to their home institution but not their overseas university, and they received a grant for living expenses. The Turing scheme provides UK students studying overseas only with grants towards travel and living expenses; tuition fee waivers are not explicitly addressed.

This raises concerns as to how students from disadvantaged backgrounds will self-finance, as well as the impact on recruitment into modern language degrees. There is a need for reciprocal fee-waiver arrangements. The Turing scheme should also consider adopting measures used by Erasmus+ to target participants from disadvantaged backgrounds; such as providing an additional €120 per month for disadvantaged students studying abroad.

Under Erasmus+, approximately 30,000 European students visited the UK each year without having to pay UK universities’ tuition fees. The government should consider replicating this under the Turing scheme as a way of attracting overseas students to the UK. At present, the Turing scheme only applies to UK students; taking measures to boost two-way exchange would enhance its appeal.

Consideration should also be given to reducing the red tape for overseas students. Those coming to study for more than six months should be exempt from having to pay for a visa, the NHS surcharge and providing certified proof of English language ability, which they didn’t have to do under Erasmus+.

If these requirements are not removed, other Anglophone countries are likely to experience a surge in Erasmus+ students at the UKs expense. Such a reduced flow of inbound students would lessen the substantial social, cultural, economic and soft power benefits that international students bring to UK higher education institutions and wider society. In 2018, their economic contribution alone was put at £440m.

The government has declared that the Turing scheme will provide students with opportunities to study in a larger number of countries than Erasmus+ did. Even though Erasmus+ covers more than one hundred countries, including many outside the EU, it would clearly be positive if the Turing scheme could be more global still.

Achieving such an ambition will require greater investment, though. Striking out on its own and expanding the number of countries involved in its international higher education exchange programme is likely to bring the UK additional administrative costs.

Lastly, I hope that the Turing scheme will provide opportunities for university staff and other young people to teach, train, learn or volunteer abroad, as is the case with Erasmus+. Everyone connected with universities can benefit from travelling abroad to develop professional practice and build relationships with international peers.

The UK government’s commitment to and continuing investment in an international mobility programme for students is highly welcome. The Turing scheme arguably has the potential to match the Erasmus+ scheme, but appropriate refinements are needed to make this promise a reality. I’d strongly encourage the government to work with universities to achieve this end.

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