After Truss, the UK can still rebuild its global reputation

Liz Truss announces her resignation as UK prime minister after just six weeks in office. Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images.
Liz Truss announces her resignation as UK prime minister after just six weeks in office. Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images.

Liz Truss could not command support for her calamitous – and misnamed – mini-budget. And once her new Chancellor Jeremy Hunt had overturned its provisions, she had no mission or credibility left.

The budget pushed interest rates higher and they did not fall much on the scrapping of it, leaving her open to the charge she pushed up mortgage and interest costs for every person and business in the country. Her apology for ‘mistakes made’ was not going to reverse that, so her MPs were right to tell her to go.

Her departure does mark a victory for at least some of the UK’s institutions, even if it might not seem that way to observers around the world.

The position of the UK parliament has been reaffirmed, and so has that of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) – it will be a long time before a government tries to dispense with the comments of the independent watchdog of national finances.

This also reinforces the principle that governments must explain how they will pay for their programmes. The Bank of England remains unencumbered – despite Truss’s apparent intentions of giving it a pro-growth addition to its mandate – to pursue its aim of tackling inflation.

New leader needs legitimacy quickly

The Conservative party has a chance – perhaps – to produce another prime minister without being forced into a general election, as that is the constitutional principle in the UK’s parliamentary system.

But the clamour that the new leader, as the third prime minister in one year, lacks legitimacy may prove impossible to resist for long.

In attempting to select a leader with a chance of uniting the party, the Conservatives are right to be considering options for restricting this leadership election to MPs should there be only one candidate with enough support.

But no such candidate may emerge and the pressure within the Commons – and the country – for an early election will not let up.

There is no question the UK’s standing in the world has been severely battered by this episode and by the revolving door of prime ministers. For the UK to regain respect – and an image of reliability – it needs to move fast and find someone capable of putting policies into action.

Those policies need to be based on economic stability but must also include a resolution of the relationship with Europe as much of the current upheaval represents the bitter aftermath of Brexit.

Concluding a deal with Brussels over the Northern Ireland protocol – avoiding ripping up the treaty the UK signed – and continuing to smooth the considerable friction that the exit from the EU has brought for exporters is essential work for the next prime minister.

Pursuing a deal for scientists to take part in the European Union (EU) Horizon research should be a priority. UK universities and researchers are already reluctantly preparing for a future where that does not come, with signs of the feared drain of talent already clear.

UK’s international reputation now at risk

Beyond that, there is much about UK policy which needs clarifying if the country is to regain its international standing. Just weeks from the start of COP27 and less than one year since the Glasgow climate change summit it hosted, the UK position on climate change commitments appears in flux.

The UK government pledge to help Ukraine is clear and has won it gratitude there and respect within Europe, but its intentions for defence spending are less clear.

And its position on visas and international students was left in chaos by the six weeks of Truss government – as evidenced by the resignation of Suella Braverman as home secretary. Reassuring countries, especially India, of its intentions is important, and the same goes for the UK’s position on human rights and its international commitments in that area.

Above all, the UK must show its reputation for being a country which holds respect for law and good government high in its values. The country is more capable of change – and willing to impose it on itself – than many in other countries often imagine. The speed with which it embraced devolution, created mayors, and partially reformed the House of Lords in past years show this.

In this case however, UK politicians have been indulging in improvisation and experimentation which have shaken the constitutional framework of the country as well as its reputation. The next government needs rapidly to change that.

Bronwen Maddox, Director and Chief Executive.

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