Britain's Tories head for a July 4 beatdown — but the post-Brexit crisis isn't over

U.K.'s hapless prime minister calls a "snap election" he's sure to lose, while the Trump-style right bides its time

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 25, 2024 9:00AM (EDT)

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, soaked in rain, pauses as he delivers a speech to announce July 4 as the date of the UK's next general election, at 10 Downing Street in central London, on May 22, 2024. (HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, soaked in rain, pauses as he delivers a speech to announce July 4 as the date of the UK's next general election, at 10 Downing Street in central London, on May 22, 2024. (HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)

I’m not here to praise Rishi Sunak, or to bury him — the soon-to-be-former British prime minister has dealt with both of those tasks admirably, all by himself. If Sunak is remembered for anything, it will probably be as a curious footnote: After becoming the fourth leader of the U.K.’s government (and the Conservative Party’s parliamentary majority) within four years, he managed to restore a semblance of political stability and “normalcy” to 10 Downing Street after the tragicomic chaos and self-destruction of the Brexit vote and Boris Johnson’s tenure. Whether stability and normalcy are achievable long-term goals in any so-called democracy these days remains to be seen.

Sunak wrote a memorable first draft of his political obituary this past week, standing in a drenching rainstorm on the pavement outside his official residence to announce that an unscheduled general election — a “snap election,” in British parlance — will be held on July 4. (The social media meme “10 Drowning Street” took off within minutes.) All 650 seats in the House of Commons will be up for grabs, and nearly all observers expect Sunak and the Tories — a term that predates the official founding of the Conservative Party by 150 years — to lose, perhaps in a historic wipeout, returning the opposition Labour Party to power for the first time since 2010. 

Despite that presumed change in government, this won’t be an exciting or dramatic campaign, especially compared to the apocalyptic-slash-geriatric nightmare spectacle we will endure on this side of the Atlantic, where one candidate faces dozens of felony indictments and the other seems determined to alienate as many of his party’s core supporters as possible. It’s no exaggeration to say that Sunak — the first person from a nonwhite immigrant background to hold the office and also the wealthiest prime minister in history — and Keir Starmer, the bluff, bland, profoundly noncommittal Labour leader, are both much closer to being Joe Biden than Donald Trump. 

In other words, they’re both believers in what I once heard the doomed Jeb Bush, facing his Waterloo in the New Hampshire primary of 2016, describe as “regular-order politics.” Neither of them is likely to alter the trajectory of post-Brexit Britain’s multiple social and economic crises in any fundamental way.

One of the numerous supposedly-charming anomalies of the British parliamentary system is that the prime minister has wide latitude to call for an election, with six weeks’ notice, virtually anytime within five years of the last one. (There was a brief effort to move to regularly scheduled elections, like a normal democracy, but that never worked and has officially been ditched.) Sunak could have hung on until the current Parliament expires next January, in hopes that his dire poll numbers might improve. Presumably he didn’t want to come off as quite that desperate and undignified — he does look good in his expensive suits! — and suspected it might be unwise to inflict an election campaign on the British public during the Christmas holidays.

Most observers expected a gradual rollout toward an election in October or November, semi-coincidentally around the same time as the U.S. presidential election. The surprise announcement that the election will instead be held on the day that Britain’s most prominent former colony celebrates its independence is a different kind of coincidence, one that serves to illustrate how much the political trajectories of these long-intertwined nations have diverged in recent years.

There’s a broad, general and roughly accurate truism that British and American politics have paralleled or echoed each other since World War II. Sometimes the relationship is fairly tenuous: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal preceded Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s vast expansion of the British welfare state by a full decade, and both were products of a mid-century social-democratic tendency that was global in scale. Lyndon Johnson and Harold Wilson (prime minister from 1964 to 1970) were very different leaders with divergent worldviews, but both represented the big-government, liberal-democratic outlook of the Cold War years.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, rose to power less than two years apart, as forthright ideological allies in the neoconservative conquest of the Anglo-American world. Similarly, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair represented the self-conscious rebranding of their respective center-left parties around an agenda of privatization, deregulation and globalization that we would now call neoliberalism. 

Brexit and Boris Johnson seemed to reorder the British political landscape around a Trump-style populist rebellion. But it didn't stick, and that exemplifies the differences between the U.K.'s system and ours.

Then we get to the things that are and are not alike, and that define the current predicaments of the two nations: Brexit and Donald Trump. For most of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Tories held power in London under a muddled center-right coalition government led by David Cameron, who might qualify as a moderate Democrat if you translated him into middle America and subtracted the Etonian-Oxonian upbringing. Increasingly harried by far-right dissidents within his own party, Cameron backed himself into one of the most disastrous own-goals of recent political history by agreeing to the Brexit referendum, which he and virtually all other leading figures in the U.K.’s two major parties opposed.

We know how that turned out, and we also know who managed to surf the Brexit wave successfully, at least for a while: former bad-boy journalist and London mayor Boris Johnson, who styled himself as Britain’s upper-class-twit Trump cognate, ousted former Prime Minister Theresa May (who had ousted Cameron) and scored a smashing victory in the 2019 election on a far greater scale than anything Trump could have imagined. His rebranded pro-Brexit, anti-immigrant Tories won an 80-seat majority in Parliament, flipping numerous districts in the “red wall” of previously safe Labour seats across the post-industrial north of England and seemingly reordering the U.K.’s political landscape around a populist rebellion that united affluent suburbanites and the now-legendary “white working class.”

But that didn’t stick, for a bunch of cultural, political and institutional reasons that exemplify the differences between the two countries and our systems of government. As I wrote at the time of Johnson’s downfall two summers ago (linked above), he could only wish he were like Trump, whose messianic hold on the Republican Party and its voters only grows stronger as his trials and travails worsen. When the Tories in Parliament got sick of Johnson’s noxious cult of personality and shambolic governing style, and decided he was an electoral liability, they could chuck him to the curb without worrying too much about how his superfans would react. 

British politics has nothing like the American party-primary system, let alone the gerrymandered legislative districts whose Republican incumbents are terrorized that any minor deviation from MAGA orthodoxy will lead to a far-right torchlight parade on their front lawn. Johnson certainly had true believers among the hardcore Tory faithful (and no doubt still does), and after he quit their tribe united behind his hand-picked successor, Liz Truss, who shared his pseudo-populist magical thinking but none of his pickled-schoolboy charisma or political cunning. Truss literally proposed a budget that simultaneously cut taxes and increased spending, and famously failed to outlast a head of lettuce. 

After her 49 days in office, the party’s power brokers decided that enough was enough. They declined to hold another internal leadership election and straight-up appointed Sunak, who despite his name and his ancestry was perfectly crafted to be an old-school Tory prime minister: Stanford MBA, career at Goldman Sachs, marriage to a billionaire’s daughter. No one hates him with any serious passion, and he may actually think he’s doing the right thing by threatening to deport migrants to Rwanda (seriously!) and insisting that the poor and the middle class must keep on making sacrifices for the good of the financial markets. 

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If the BoJo/Brexit moment both did and didn’t resemble what happened in America during the (first) Trump era, one could say the same about the thoroughly unexpected left-wing takeover of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, which was something like the Bernie Sanders campaign on steroids, fueled by entrenched British class warfare. Corbyn nearly won the 2017 general election against Theresa May — a massive what-if that would have sent Britain in unpredictable directions — but was sabotaged by his intra-party enemies and his own incompetence well before the crushing loss to Johnson two years later. (Corbyn was reportedly expelled from the party altogether this week, after announcing he would run for his own seat as an independent against Labour’s official candidate.)

Liz Truss was defeated by a head of lettuce. But she spoke at CPAC and just published a fire-breathing memoir calling for dismantling the U.N. Her comeback dreams are real.

Keir Starmer emerged in the aftermath of Corbyn’s downfall as a middle-road normie, neither a full-on socialist nor a neoliberal reformer, and a supposed return to Labour’s center-left tradition — except that after 14 years of Tory misrule and endless rounds of fiscal “austerity,” no one can explain what that means. Certainly Starmer can’t; his principal campaign tactic involves backing away from any specific promises or commitments while reminding voters that his party isn’t to blame for Britain’s cratering economy, crumbling infrastructure and decaying public services. 

That’s true, and it might be good enough under the circumstances — if “good enough” means winning this year’s election and buying some time to manage multiple crises in a formerly dominant superpower that now seems determined to rip itself apart. If that seems like an oddly familiar scenario, at least the Brits know they no longer rule the world.

As Starmer and Sunak and everybody else in politics on both sides of the Atlantic understand well enough, the pseudo-populist and/or neofascist rebellion isn’t over. It just needed a timeout. 

Liz Truss may have been derailed by “global elites,” bean-counting bankers and weak-willed fellow Tories, not to mention wilted salad greens (and the death of Queen Elizabeth), but her comeback dreams are alive. She’s become a star on the international right-wing speaking circuit, and just published a fire-breathing, supposedly-not-ghostwritten memoir called “Ten Years to Save the West,” in which she calls for dismantling “the leftist state,” along with the U.N., the World Health Organization and every other regulatory agency on the planet. A reviewer for the Times, a Tory-friendly Murdoch-owned paper, suggested that Truss was “psychiatrically incapable” of learning from her own mistakes. Does that sound like anyone we know?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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