Britain’s prime ministers are falling fast since Brexit

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Data: Axios search;  Graphic: Jared Whalen/Axios
Data: Axios search; Graphic: Jared Whalen/Axios

UK will next week having its fifth Prime Minister since the 2016 Brexit referendum – the same number as in the previous 37 years.

Why is this important: The fallout from Brexit continues to define and divide the Conservative Party, Truss Swift the faster ascent and descent are clear.

Rollback: David Cameron promised a referendum during his winning election campaign in 2015 to settle his party’s long-running infighting over EU membership.

  • Cameron and most senior Tories campaigned against Brexit. When they lost, Cameron quit, Theresa May (another “Remainer”) arrived, and the infighting only deepened.
  • May’s main challenge was to balance Brexit campaign promises – ‘taking back control’ over immigration and trade – with the need to preserve relations with a bloc that accounted for half of trade and shared a border land with the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland.
  • Most voters, and indeed most politicians, initially did not seem to grasp the complicated compromises required. May was unable to navigate the path between Brexit purists and pragmatists and quit after three difficult years.

Then came Boris Johnson, who called and won a snap election promising to “get Brexit done”.

  • That 2019 election, and Johnson’s tenure more generally, saw party MPs and his electorate shift from Cameron’s centrism to a tougher view on Brexit, immigration and trade.
  • For much of the Conservative Party, faith in Brexit has been accompanied by a general distrust of expertise and institutions, and a belief that an unfettered UK can stand as a world power.
Liz Truss delivers her resignation speech. Photo: Rob Pinney/Getty Images

Truss, a remaining hardliner turned Brexiteer, was the purest possible manifestation of this change.

  • When Johnson fell due to a series of scandals, with key Brexit issues still unresolved, the right flank in Parliament and the wider party membership coalesced around Truss.
  • When her rivals and critics warned that cutting taxes while spending big on energy subsidies would raise inflation and interest rates, she called it ‘draft scare’ – an echo of the pro-Brexit campaign .
  • Then, after the economic turmoil did indeed set in and Truss was forced to abandon most of her platform, her former right-wing allies joined centrist skeptics in demanding her resignation.

Data: Axios search; Graphic: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

And after: With party approval ratings at rock bottom and an election looming in two years (or sooner), downtrodden Tory MPs must now decide where to turn. Many emphasize party unity while disagreeing over which candidate can deliver it.

  • Fans of former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, whose warnings about Truss’ tax plans now seem prescient, believe he could begin to restore the party’s tattered reputation for economic prudence.
  • Supporters of Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt say as a fairly moderate Brexiteer she can bring opposing flanks together.
  • A similar case can be made for Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, who declined to run over the summer but was widely praised for his handling of Ukraine.
  • Hardliners like Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch — two former leadership candidates who later joined Truss’ cabinet — could credibly claim that today’s Conservative Party has moved in on them and s is away from the spongy center.
  • Then there’s the man who led the Brexit campaign, won the current Tory majority and would be inclined to throw his hat in the ring: Boris Johnson.

The bottom line: The post-Brexit identity crisis has been played out with the Conservatives in power. A true reset might not be possible until they lose it.

Go further: Liz Truss has just become the UK’s shortest PM

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