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Truss vs Sunak: Race for UK leadership heats up amid looming recession

By Reza Javadi

The cut-throat race to Downing Street is in full swing, with two formidable figures and seasoned campaigners fighting it out for the coveted chair, to replace Boris Johnson, who faced an unceremonious exit last month after a string of scandals rocked his government.

Former British Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are the remaining two contenders in the fray, among 11 Conservative MPs who submitted their bids for the British premiership.

Sunak, 42, spearheaded the rebellion against Johnson when he announced his resignation as Chancellor of the Exchequer in early July, saying the public expects the government to be conducted "properly, competently and seriously”.

Born in South East England to Indian-origin parents, Sunak in his leadership campaign has primarily focused on his family’s immigrant roots in order to win the favor of his party and people.

He has also pledged to implement the controversial Rwanda policy, which is an attempt by the UK government to repatriate asylum seekers in the country to Rwanda, four thousand miles away.

The underdog in the race is opposed to cutting taxes and has said that he would wait for the inflation to subside before going on a tax-cutting spree. Interestingly, it was revealed earlier this year that his billionaire heiress wife had avoided millions in taxes, which prompted many to seek his resignation.

Sunak, who was involved in the infamous 'Partygate' scandal and fined by police for breaching the government's own Covid-19 protocol, has the shadow of many scandals that brought down Johnson hovering over him.   

Thus, his popularity in the Conservative camp is profoundly influenced by his records in the cabinet.

Truss, 46, whose dogmatism may not help her in navigating the challenges of being at the helm, has pledged to slash $36 billion in taxes, to be paid for through borrowing.

According to a YouGov poll for The Times newspaper, carried out from July 29 to August 2, Truss had the support of 60 percent of conservative members versus 26 percent for Sunak, with the remainder of nearly 1,000 members polled either undecided or not planning to vote.

Considering all of the existing factors, Truss appears to have a slight edge over Sunak.

Truss, who was chosen by Johnson first as the Trade Minister and then as Foreign Secretary, returned the favor by supporting Johnson when he was caught in the web of scandals and stood by him until his final weeks in office. Now she is gearing up to take his place at 10 Downing Street.

Among her much-publicized plans to fix the country's economy is cutting taxes and decreasing the burden on Britons, which has been widely welcomed by the members of the party.

"The average age of a party member is the late 50s. Just under half are of pensionable age and they are predominately White," Tim Bale, a professor of politics at the Queen Mary University of London and a close observer of the Conservative Party, told CNN news agency.

"They mostly live in southern England and are (financially) comfortable. They support a strong line on law and order, they approve of low taxes" Bale added.

Given the cost-of-living crisis, the main challenge for people has been increasing taxes and sharp hikes in prices, which Truss has promised to take up as the first priority of her premiership.

While she believes that cutting taxes would give a fillip to the economy, Sunak calls it fantasy economics by Truss, given the UK is still recovering from the economic shock of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Both candidates are trying to appeal to the party base at a time when the UK economy is stagnant, and has caused Britons to struggle with skyrocketing inflation and a cost of living crisis.

Labour shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves was at pains to explain this week that the government has “lost control of the economy”, adding that “as families and pensioners worry about how they’re going to pay their bills, the Tory leadership candidates are touring the country announcing unworkable policies that will do nothing to help people get through this crisis.”

The eventual winner will face the challenge of reviving Britain’s economy. Weaker trade after Brexit, pandemic, high energy prices following Russia's military operation in Ukraine, and a series of scandals under Johnson’s watch have all damaged the Conservative Party.

The fears among leading conservative members are growing over the fact that regardless of which candidate wins, the Conservative Party will end up being the main loser, given all the accusations that are being exchanged between the rivals to destroy one another.

The last two candidates in the race will be trying to convince party members to back them at hustings events around the country until 31 August.

The party members, whose number reaches about 200,000, will give a postal vote then. The ballot will close on 2 September with the winner due to be announced on 5 September.

While on the domestic front, the two PM hopefuls have contrasting stances, they appear to be on the same page on the country's foreign policy, especially the policy toward the Middle East.

According to parliamentary voting data, their views on issues affecting the region appear largely similar.

Following Johnson's deep footprint on most of the foreign policy matters, a Sunak government would mean a continuation of the same policy: supporting Western intervention in Syria and Iraq, continuing arms exports to Saudi Arabia, opposing Iran’s peaceful nuclear program, supporting Israeli regime's clandestine nuclear activities and destabilization plots in the region.

Sunak’s priorities are likely to be heavily domestic and suggest the continuation of the status quo.

Truss’ prospective administration seems to have a clearer foreign policy approach in contrast to Sunak’s, in line with their record in the cabinet.

It would be interesting to see her stance on the restoration of the 2015 nuclear deal. As the top diplomat, she spoke of getting “Iran back to the [negotiating] table”, even though Iran never left the table in the first place. Britain's role in the Vienna talks, as a member of the European troika, has been duplicitous. 

She is also expected to aggressively take up the cases of British nationals jailed in Iran for espionage. She led the negotiations during her time at the Foreign Office, which resulted in the release of two dual-national prisoners, who faced charges of an extremely serious nature. 

Regarding her policy towards the Arabian periphery states of the Persian Gulf, she is likely to strengthen ties with Arab states and promote her notion of a “Liberty Network” of the countries in the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council.

Regardless of who takes the pole position, the next prime minister would have to focus more on domestic crises rather than poking their nose into other countries.


Reza Javadi is a PhD student in British Studies in the University of Tehran.

(The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Press TV.)

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