UK leader hopefuls make final push amid soaring cost crisis

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Members of the National Union of Journalists demonstrate outside the offices of Reach Plc, in Canary Wharf, London, as they begin strike action after talks to resolve a pay dispute broke down, in London, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. More than 1,000 journalists from at Reach newspapers and websites from around the country took part in the strike action from publications including The Mirror, Express, Daily Record and Sunday Mail. (Victoria Jones/PA via AP)

LONDON – The two candidates vying to become Britain’s next prime minister were making their final push to win over Conservative Party members Wednesday, wrapping up a summer of campaigning ahead of a leadership announcement on Monday.

That decision — made by only about 180,000 party voters, not the country's whole electorate — couldn’t come soon enough.

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Britain has been rudderless for weeks as it endures a deepening cost-of-living crisis, the worst to hit the country for decades. Since Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his impending resignation on July 7, a cascade of workers’ strikes has disrupted ports, trains and multiple industrial sectors as energy and food costs skyrocket and unions demand better pay.

Households are facing an 80% jump in energy bills triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, prices are set to soar even higher in the coming months and the U.K. economy is heading into a potentially lengthy recession.

The Conservative government has faced increasingly urgent calls for action to ease the pain, but officials have insisted that no new policy will be decided until a new prime minister is in place on Tuesday.

Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, said this summer has seen the Conservative Party looking “inwards rather than outwards” at a time when millions of Britons have been plunged into uncertainty and financial hardship.

“There is a feeling in the country that the last few weeks have been, in some ways, a bit of a waste of time,” he said. “I think the country’s just wanting the government to get on with it and wanting the government to tell them what they’re going to do to help them through what looks like a really, really difficult autumn and winter.”

The two leadership finalists, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak, have been widely criticized for offering very little in the way of concrete policies to help households and businesses struggling to afford essentials.

Truss, the frontrunner, has spoken about tax cuts such as slashing sales taxes and is reportedly mulling more financial help targeting the most vulnerable households. But her supporters have said she will not finalize her plans to tackle spiralling costs before she becomes the leader –- a stance that seems tone deaf as charities, small businesses and even heads of schools plead for help and say they face closure unless there is significant government aid.

Neither Truss nor Sunak wanted to come forward with detailed plans, partly because they are reluctant to promise anything they couldn’t deliver as the economic outlook continues to worsen, Bale said.

Conservative ideology – and the way the new leader is chosen – also play a part in how the candidates have responded to the crisis.

“Conservative Party members probably don’t want to hear about having to increase the help to households from the state, since they believe that the state should do as little as possible,” Bale added.

Truss and Sunak, who have both declared their admiration for Margaret Thatcher and her ring-wing, small-government economics, are not campaigning for support from the wider U.K. public. Instead, they are seeking to win over the Conservative Party membership.

Only about 180,000 party members will have a vote in choosing the party leader, and that person will automatically become the next U.K. prime minister.

Meanwhile strikes or ballots for industrial action are being announced almost daily amid growing demands for pay rises to keep pace with inflation. Train drivers, postal and port workers, garbage collectors and lawyers have staged walkouts in recent weeks, and unions representing teachers, nurses and others are considering similar action.

An initial field of 11 Conservative candidates put their hats in the ring after Johnson quit in July, as his government was engulfed by ethics scandals. Revelations of pandemic lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street, Johnson’s office and residence, eroded his authority for months, and Conservative lawmakers finally forced Johnson out over his appointment of a politician accused of sexual misconduct.

Johnson sought to strike an optimistic note Wednesday, highlighting positives during his term in office -– such as low unemployment and investments in rail and high-speed broadband –- and dodging questions about the cost-of-living crisis that his successor will inherit.

The U.K. has the “financial strength to get through” cost-of-living “pressures,” he told reporters. Asked whether Britain was broken in the final days of his leadership, he said: “Absolutely not. This country has got an incredible future and has everything going for it.”

Final campaigning was taking place later Wednesday in London, and the winner will be announced Monday. Johnson and his successor will then travel to Scotland to see Queen Elizabeth II on Tuesday -– one to formally tender his resignation, and the other to be invited to form a government.

The queen’s meetings with prime ministers traditionally take place in London’s Buckingham Palace. But the 96-year-old monarch has suffered from mobility problems in recent months, and so the arrangements are being moved for the first time to the Scottish Highlands, where she traditionally spends her summers.


Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.


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