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Britain's political farce takes down another prime minister as Tories get set to try again

Lizz Truss resigned as British prime minister Thursday, becoming the shortest serving PM in the country's history. So what's next? Political analysts say none of the options for the Conservatives look good — especially the notion that Boris Johnson may try to stage a political comeback.

Could Liz Truss's resignation as PM mean the return of Boris Johnson? Don’t bet on it

British Prime Minister Liz Truss announces her resignation, outside 10 Downing Street in London on Thursday. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

By next Friday, and possibly sooner, Britain will have its third prime minister so far in 2022 — its fifth since the Brexit vote in 2016 — and still no certainty that its unprecedented political crisis is on its way to being resolved.

"Whatever happens, it's a mess," said pollster Joe Twyman of Deltapoll. "It's very difficult to see how a [Conservative] Party as divided and fractious as this can unite behind one candidate."

Liz Truss's dramatic resignation as prime minister Thursday — just 44 days after winning the leadership — makes her the shortest serving PM in British history. And the just-beginning leadership race that's set to pick a successor in just seven days, will also make this the fastest turnover of power the country has ever witnessed.

WATCH | Truss announces her resignation outside 10 Downing Street: 

Liz Truss resigns as British PM after only 6 weeks

4 months ago
Duration 3:04
After just six tumultuous weeks in office, Liz Truss resigned Thursday as Britain’s Prime Minister, setting the U.K. on course for its fifth prime minister in just over six years, and sparking calls for a general election from opposition politicians.

"We can't have a revolving door of chaos," said opposition leader Keir Starmer, whose Labour Party weighed in with a 36 point lead over the Conservatives in a recent poll, the biggest gap recorded in almost thirty years. 

"This isn't a soap opera at the top of the Tory party — it's doing huge damage to our economy and the reputation of our country," he said.

Starmer and other opposition MPs are demanding an immediate general election, which would, in all likelihood, lead to a Conservative decimation, and so the Tories will forge ahead with yet another leadership contest.

Unless called earlier, the next general election is not set to take place until January 2025.

"This is the last chance saloon for the Conservative Party," said Catherine Haddon, a senior fellow at London's Institute for Government.

"Unless you can actually bring your party together, get votes through Parliament, and be able to have a functioning government, you're not showing you can govern. And if you can't do that, the only option is a general election."

British Prime Minister Liz Truss and Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng visit a construction site for a medical innovation campus, on day three of the Conservative Party's annual conference at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham on Oct. 4. (Stefan Rousseau/Reuters)

Truss's budget woes

It was only a few weeks ago that a campaigning Truss promised party members policies that would tame soaring inflation. She vowed to slash taxes for the wealthy and promised relief from sky-high energy bills.

But financial markets hated the debt-laden budget crafted by Truss and her former Chancellor of the Exchequer, or finance minister, Kwasi Kwarteng. 

It sent the pound plummeting and mortgage rates soaring. The health of public pension plans were suddenly in jeopardy, prompting a momentous intervention of bond buying from the Bank of England in an attempt to head off a full blown economic meltdown. 

Last week, Truss fired Kwarteng and tried to right the ship with a new finance minister, Jeremy Hunt. He reversed almost every one of the controversial budget measures, but Truss's death spiral only intensified.

Betting odds for who will become the next Conservative Party leader are seen on a board outside London's Houses of Parliament Thursday. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters )

From chaotic vote to possible replacements

The final straw appears to have happened Wednesday evening during a chaotic vote in the House of Commons on whether to ban hydraulic fracking for shale gas. Longtime Tory MP Sir Charles Walker called the event "an absolute disgrace."

First, Tory MPs were told the vote was a confidence motion — then it wasn't. Then the chief whip quit over the vote.  Then she didn't, prompting Walker to claim Truss's ability to lead "was not recoverable."

WATCH | 'Right and proper that she should go.' Britons react to PM's resignation: 

Public reaction to Liz Truss's resignation pours in

4 months ago
Duration 1:00
People around England chime in with their reaction to Liz Truss's resignation as U.K. prime minister.

But which potential replacement for Truss has the best chance to repair the damage and get the government functioning again is unclear.

Late Thursday afternoon, the party released the hastily improvised rules for how the next leader will be chosen.   

He or she will require the support of at least 100 MPs to even qualify. With 357 sitting members of Parliament, that means there could be a maximum of three candidates for party members to vote on by Oct. 28.

However, if only one candidate meets the threshold by a 2 p.m. Monday deadline, then that person would automatically be selected as the new leader and the new prime minister.

Former finance minister Rishi Sunak speaks to the media at a July event in London to launch his campaign to be the next Conservative leader and prime minister. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters )

Rishi Sunak, the former finance minister whose resignation played a role in the downfall of former prime minister Boris Johnson, finished second to Truss in the most recent leadership contest and is the bookmakers favourite.

Supporters say he's interested, but he hasn't tipped his hand.

There's also Penny Mordaunt, leader of the House of Commons and a member of Truss's cabinet. She finished just behind Sunak in this summer's leadership race and could be a compromise candidate.

WATCH | 'Extraordinarily difficult period' likely ahead for leadership winner: analyst 

'It's a mess,' says political analyst of British Conservative Party

4 months ago
Duration 5:41
Despite the resignation of British Prime Minister Liz Truss, it's difficult to see how any successor could unite the Conservative Party, appeal to the electorate and steer the U.K. through its current economic turmoil, says pollster and political analyst Joe Twyman.

Could Boris bounce back? 

But by far the most intriguing scenario would see Johnson himself attempt an act of political resurrection and try to get his old job back.

When he spoke for the last time outside 10 Downing Street in early September, using typical Boris Johnson metaphors, he described his tenure as PM as being like a "booster rocket" that had done its part and was now falling back to Earth, its fuel spent.

But that hasn't stopped his longtime allies from quickly raising his name as a possible successor to Truss.

Outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a speech on his last day in office, outside 10 Downing Street on Sept. 6. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

"If Liz Truss is no longer PM there can be no coronation of previously failed candidates. MPs must demand the return of @BorisJohnson," tweeted Nadine Dorries, a former cabinet minister under Johnson.

Other Conservative MPs were effusive before the TV cameras.

"I know he's on holiday with his family, but if he's listening there's certainly a lot of support and I'd urge him to put his name forward," Conservative MP Brendan Clark-Smith told the BBC.

While a Johnson comeback can't be ruled out, detractors are already saying it would lead to resignations.

Many of the mistakes that led to him resigning in the first place are a result of his personality flaws, and I can't imagine anyone will be particularly convinced that he's changed.- Analyst Joe Twyman on Boris Johnson

MP John Baron told BBC's Radio 4 it would be "impossible" to serve with Johnson as leader again — and other veteran political watchers also see it as unlikely. 

"If the last eight years of craziness in British politics have told us anything it's that nothing is impossible — but it has to be a unity candidate and [Johnson] divided the party," said Twyman of Deltapoll. 

"Many of the mistakes that led to him resigning in the first place are a result of his personality flaws, and I can't imagine anyone will be particularly convinced that he's changed."

Tory troubles trace back to Brexit

Much of the Conservative Party's current troubles can be traced back to the fallout from Prime Minister David Cameron's decision to hold a vote on exiting the European Union in 2016.

The "Brexit" forces scored a surprising 52 per cent to 48 per cent victory, but it turned out to be a pyrrhic win, says Haddon, the political analyst.

"I think definitely this is a ripple effect of Brexit. It did huge damage to the Conservative Party in terms of opening up very raw wounds of different camps within the party," she told CBC News in an interview.

"They had basically the opportunity to find whatever solution to Brexit they could all rally around, but nobody wanted to compromise, nobody wanted to give up the battle."

Anti-Brexit protester Steve Bray holds a placard reading 'Stop the Tories' outside London's Houses of Parliament on Thursday. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

In Sunak's recent leadership campaign, he shunned the traditional Tory tax-cutting agenda, arguing it would exacerbate the financial hurt faced by Britons. Truss, on the other hand, embraced it — and subsequently paid the price.

So does that leave the Conservatives irreparably divided? Perhaps, says Twyman.

"What has proved successful in the past is that they can unite behind a leader who can win — that has been the overarching philosophy of the Conservative Party for hundreds of years. I do not see a candidate at the moment who can win."

The insults, the infighting and the dysfunction might simply be brushed off as political theatre, except that the impact on Britain's international reputation has been hugely hurtful, says Haddon.

"The last six years and the many, many farcical scenes, moments of chaos, they've all been the same. And people are probably shrugging their shoulders and saying, 'here we go again.' "

U.K. members of Parliament critical of Liz Truss

4 months ago
Duration 0:34
Some Labour and Conservative MPs had sharp words to share about the state of the government during Liz Truss's tenure as prime minister.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

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