By Natania Wong

Watching the British government reel through a quick succession of prime ministers in the past few months has probably left unfamiliar American observers wondering– what is going on, and what will the future of the Conservative party be?

Britain’s parliamentary democracy works distinctively differently from the representative democracy of the United States. While Americans vote to elect the president in the electoral college system, Britons cast a vote for their desired local representative of parliament, their Member of Parliament or MP. The party that has the majority of votes is in charge of forming a government and choosing the nation’s prime minister. Upon Boris Johnson’s resignation, ballots were given to the Conservative party’s MPs, where the candidate with the lowest vote was eliminated in each round. Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak were the two candidates who made it to the final round, followed by the party-wide election among all Conservative members. Truss’ campaign was focused ambitiously on cutting the taxes of high earners in hopes of boosting the British economy. However, the plan has ignited criticism in the general public, especially during these times of economic recession where millions of Britons are struggling with increasing living costs and the risk of cuts to government social programs. The pound is also at the lowest level against the dollar since 1985 amidst fears of massive borrowing in order to pay for the cuts in spending. The Truss administration then took a complete u-turn earlier in October when Truss’s chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng decided to abolish the tax-cut plan, causing both economic and political turmoil. Truss inevitably had to step down after just 45 days in office to avoid further division within the nation and the party. Sunak, who competed against Truss not long ago, succeeded her place as the country’s third prime minister in three months. 

Sunak’s upcoming challenges include resolving the country’s financial crisis. Amidst the surge in the cost of living, the inflation rate of the country has reached its new-40-year-high, reaching double-digits at 13%. The energy prices in Britain have skyrocketed to 80%, at a much higher rate than any other European country, a result not only of the outbreak of the Ukraine-Russia war, but also of the lack of storage of natural gas, as well as how the British energy supplier functions. Instead of acting as providers of utility, the energy suppliers buy electricity and gas from the wholesale market, then resell the resources to households. While it has been harder and harder for households to put food on the table, it will also be a challenge for Sunak to implement the aggressive economic policies necessary in order to tackle the recession. 

Sunak’s other agenda is to decide Britain’s standing on the international stage, whether it is toughening up Britain’s support for Ukraine against Russia’s invasion, Britain’s continuous partnership with the United States, taking a stance in a growingly intense relationship with China, or repairing Britain’s relationship with Europe amidst Brexit. With increasingly intense international relations, Sunak’s new policies would take a huge role in determining Britain’s position in foreign affairs, as well as Britain’s relationship with partner countries.

The final, and most challenging, item on the agenda would be to find a path for the country as well as his party. While America has become more and more polarized, the United Kingdom faces a similar situation where polarization has drastically surged since the decision to Brexit in 2016. With rising political polarization within the country, it is going to be a massively challenging path for Sunak to rebuild the Conservative party’s credibility with its people, as well as to reunite the division within the party itself. 

With Boris Johnson’s governance since 2019, the Conservative party has failed to give the voters the policies they find compelling, leaving the party to falter in the polls. Before the Partygate incident, a political scandal in which prominent political figures, including then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, held parties and gatherings at 10 Downing Street, breaking the COVID-19 public health restrictions he implemented himself, the party still dominated the poll with a steady 40%. However, followed by the Partygate scandal, as well as political chaos arising from Truss’s short-lived governance, the rate has dropped to around 20%. In fact, the Conservative party hit an all-time low polling rate of 14%. Amidst this political polarization, the party has not only lost support from the labor and working class, but also from the middle class leaving the future of the party unknown.

Within the party, it has become increasingly divisive, where members of the party are no longer united through political ideology. Their points of view are bitterly divided on a variety of topics including tax cuts and immigration policies. It would be a challenge for Sunak, who came into office without the support of voters or Conservative members, to reunite, as well as to repair the image of the party. Sunak’s mission therefore would be to reach out to the public in a wider way, to repair and reconnect everyone: not only regaining confidence from the labor and working-class who have long been Conservative supporters, but also from the university town, the professionals, the middle-class, and the younger generation. Perhaps the only way to avoid the meltdown of the Conservative party in the next race would be a show of economic competence and credibility, a complete rebranding of the Conservative party.

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