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Rishi Sunak is the United Kingdom’s third prime minister just this year. His predecessor, Liz Truss, resigned after just a few weeks, because her decision to slash taxes while driving up the deficit caused financial markets to tank. That’s when she lost the support of her party. Now, the ruling Conservative Party has anointed Sunak as her successor. This is not what the people of England want, necessarily, but it’s what they’ve got. Their last four leaders have all been from the Conservative Tory party—and they’ve all resigned or been kicked out of office. How did the U.K. get here? On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Felix Salmon, the chief financial correspondent at Axios and a co-host of Slate Money, about why the mess in Britain seems to be intractable, and why many say Brexit is to blame for where we’re at. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: A Labour Party politician recently said that Rishi Sunak is covered in the mess of the past 12 years. If you had to explain what that mess is, exactly, what would you say?
Felix Salmon: I can explain that mess with one word, which is just: Brexit. And Rishi Sunak is covered in the mess of Brexit almost more than anyone else. If you look at the list of preceding prime ministers, none of them were diehard Brexiteers. None of them were always on that wing of the Conservative Party that really wanted to leave the EU. The only one who was is Rishi Sunak. So he is deep in the cause of everything that is wrong with Britain, and everything that is wrong with the Conservative Party.
Brexit meant that anyone who wanted to get elected as a member of Parliament for the Conservative Party had to pretend to believe leaving the EU would be good for the country, even though it patently wasn’t and could never be. It was going to massively decrease the kind of immigration that every country needs. It was going to massively decrease trade. It was going to massively decrease GDP. It was going to increase inflation. It was always going to do all of these things. And Conservative MPs cannot ever admit that because this is now an article of faith for them, that Brexit was a great thing and it’s going to turn Britain into some wonderful country.
So now, even if you are an urbane technocrat like Rishi Sunak, you have to still hold the tenets of that Brexit faith close to your heart and have it at the center of your government policy. And that just creates a deep internal incoherence. You have to believe impossible things just to think that Brexit is workable. It’s not workable even today. You can’t get the imports you need. You can’t get the food you need. You can’t get the labor you need. You can’t get the trade you need. Nothing is working in Britain, and a huge portion // of why nothing is working is because of Brexit.
Brexit was complicated from the very beginning. Back in 2016, then–Prime Minister David Cameron—who was not in favor of leaving the EU—called a referendum on Brexit, basically assuming that voters would set their leaders straight.
Cameron was the leader of the Tory party back when it was roughly evenly split between proud Europeans versus, for lack of a better word, anti-Europeans, some of whom were so extreme that they wanted to leave the EU entirely. That split made the Tory party almost ungovernable. So what Cameron decided to do is call a referendum and basically say, I’m just going to answer this question once and for all.
It’s like, OK, let the people decide.
Yes, but it was never a binding referendum. But Cameron and the Tory party took it as a binding referendum.
And it sounds like the referendum kind of called the Brexiteers’ bluff.
Exactly It included this view: You really want to leave? Great, we’re going to leave, and see how you like it. Now the inevitable and entirely foreseen consequences are happening.
Cameron ended up resigning in the fallout of the Brexit vote. Theresa May then took over, but she also resigned in 2019 after failing to follow through on Brexit. British voters then elected Boris Johnson. He campaigned on “getting Brexit done,” which doesn’t talk a lot about what Brexit actually will mean in practice.
Remember that Johnson is a very cynical opportunist who, the day before he announced he was going to campaign for leaving the EU, wrote two columns for the Telegraph: one saying he’s going to support Leave, the other saying he’s going to campaign for Remain. He basically tossed a coin and decided he was going to become pro-Brexit rather than anti-Brexit, just on the grounds that he would be more likely to become prime minister that way. And it worked, but he’s not going to be remembered as a good prime minister.
And Johnson left an indelible mark on the Conservative Party, because getting Brexit done meant eliminating anyone who disagreed with him.
There was this big purge, right? Johnson had a terrible time when he had the very small majority that he inherited from Theresa May. He had a very difficult time getting legislation through Parliament because a bunch of his Tory backbenchers who supported Remain kept on asking sensible questions about how this is going to work. What he did is basically expel them all from the Conservative Party, call a new election, get a massive majority of hardcore Johnson-like Brexiteers, and then go off to the races. That actually worked in terms of delivering Brexit, but that wasn’t a good thing.
After many controversies, Johnson was replaced by Liz Truss. I heard that Truss’ approach to leading the U.K., especially during this current financial crisis, had all the hallmarks of Brexit thinking.
Yeah, it’s basically magical thinking, right? It’s entirely faith-based. There’s no coherent economic model that would support Brexit.
What Liz Truss proposed was a kind of modified Reaganomics—giving unfunded tax cuts to spur economic growth. But most economists thought this kind of spending would make inflation worse. And the markets responded.
What she wound up causing was a massive implosion in the bond market. Because everyone said: You’re going to have to borrow this much money, you’re borrowing a lot already, and you’re going to have to borrow even more because you’re increasing the deficit through these tax cuts. Arithmetically, it just didn’t add up. But as far as Truss was concerned, we were in this post-arithmetic world where all you need is hope and conviction. She had that, then she resigned.
What, exactly, can Rishi Sunak do here?
Right now, the Tories are in that Wile E. Coyote moment where they’ve already run off the top of the cliff, but they hasn’t fallen. They have this large majority in Parliament for another couple of years before they need to call an election. So they get to rule the country, even though there’s very little popular support for them. If there were a general election tomorrow, they would lose most of their seats. So to lead the Tory party is to lead the party that basically is staring death and disaster in the face. It knows that, at the next election, it’s going to get wiped out. There’s going to be this huge swing from Conservative to Labour, and Tories are trying to work out just what they can do over the next two years to minimize the damage of that election. Frankly, the answer is not very much—the damage has been done.
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Is there really no way that Sunak could reckon with Brexit?
I suppose he could come out and say, Whoops, this was a terrible idea that made everything worse, so we should try to roll back some of it and start reentering the EU and be much more constructive and start signing on to some of basic trade agreements. But there’s no way he could do that—he would face an immediate revolt in the Tory party.
I wonder if you think there are lessons in what’s going on in the U.K. for the rest of us, and if so, what those lessons are.
I feel that far too many people have been quick to draw fiscal lessons. Especially on the right. I’m hearing a lot of commentary saying, The lesson of Britain is that we need more fiscal responsibility. Like, no. The lesson of Britain is that you can’t have a faith-based government that starts with ideology rather than with reality. I do worry that there are an increasing number of ideologues running for elected office in the United States. If the big lie in Britain is that Brexit is going to be good for the country, then the equivalent lie in the United States is that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. And now a huge number of people are desperate to vote for anyone who will parrot that lie with a straight face.
More broadly, I think Brexit shows how when you have a deeply divided country where there’s two halves of the country that don’t speak the same language and are completely irreconcilable, that’s a recipe in any democracy for disaster at the governmental level.