As Britain awaits a new prime minister, its cost-of-living crisis mounts

The votes are being tallied as British Conservatives wait to see whether it will be Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak as the country's new prime minister. Whoever wins is inheriting an economic mess.

Neither Liz Truss nor Rishi Sunak has been very precise about how they would navigate the turmoil

Conservative leadership candidates Rishi Sunak, left, and Liz Truss stand together as they attend a hustings event, part of the Conservative Party leadership campaign, in London on Wednesday. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

The moving truck taking away outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson's things has already come and gone from 10 Downing Street, and shortly after noon on Monday, the name of the London residence's new Conservative occupant — the third in just six years — will be revealed. 

British leadership changeovers are notoriously swift. 

By late Tuesday morning, the Queen will have sworn in either Foreign Secretary Liz Truss or former chancellor Rishi Sunak at her Balmoral estate in Scotland. A few hours after that, the prime minister's new cabinet and leadership team will be announced.

But whoever prevails in the electronic vote of 180,000 or so Conservative Party members will immediately inherit a daunting to-do list.

Britain is facing what some researchers claim is its worst economic crisis since before the Second World War, and the prime directive for the new prime minister will be to cushion the blow.

Sunak and Truss walk together out of the stand as they attend the hustings even in London on Wednesday. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

Energy bills for typical U.K. households — driven upward by the high cost of natural gas on the international market — have already doubled since the spring and could triple by early 2023.   

Some research suggests as many as 1.7 million British households may be unable to pay their bills after the next price hike in October.

"We've got soaring costs with energy bills, with fuel prices, food is increasing," said Elizabeth Ebhodaghe, a Conservative Party member, who as the voting wrapped up this past week was still unsure who she would support.

"I want [the new leader] to be honest and transparent," she said, qualities that many Conservatives — and voters more broadly — felt were absent from Johnson.   

Sunak and Truss have spent the summer making their pitches at a series of mini-meetings with party members — "hustings," as the British call the practice.   

The final such gathering was earlier this past week in Wembley,  in north London, and the electronic voting wrapped up Friday.

Sunak's wife, Akshata Murty, left, attends a hustings event in London on Wednesday. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

"We are not in great shape at the moment," Tory member Christiaan Coetzee said outside the event. "Hopefully, [high energy prices] is just a glitch."

Neither candidate has been especially precise though about how they plan to navigate the turmoil.   

The Times newspaper reported Friday that businesses on the edge of bankruptcy could be in line for billions of pounds in tax cuts if Truss wins, but the candidate herself has not specifically said how the plan might work.   

"I will make sure we are not taking money from people in tax and then giving it back to them in handouts," Truss told the Conservatives who gathered in Wembley this week. 

That was likely meant as a jab at Sunak, who has said he would lean toward direct support instead, with the possibility of £10 billion ($16 billion Cdn) in relief, but again, the details on implementation were sparse.

"She thinks her tax cut is going to help ... which it is not. We are going to, as a Conservative government, leave millions of incredibly vulnerable people at the risk of real destitution," Sunak said at the same event.

Demonstrators block a street in Canary Wharf in London during a protest outside the Ofgem headquarters following an energy price cap announcement on Aug. 26. (Maja Smiejkowska/Reuters)

Throughout the summer campaigning, both candidates have tried to depict themselves as the leader most in touch with traditional Conservative values.

Sunak has pledged to hire more border officers and have tougher penalties for people who leave graffiti or litter. Truss has vowed to raise defence spending — and maybe even get rid of speed limits on British highways. 

A modern Thatcher?

Her campaign also frequently invites comparisons with the woman many Conservatives see as among the greatest figures of the 20th century.

"Liz Truss wants to be seen as Margaret Thatcher," said Joe Twyman, the head of Deltapoll, which surveys British public opinion.

"Thatcher is viewed, rightly or wrongly, with reverence by the party faithful. Truss is selling a return of that kind of popularity, and also a return to that kind of world — Britain's role in the world and the Conservative Party's role in Britain. To go back to that time is very attractive to many Conservative Party members."

Truss, a 47-year-old Oxford-educated mother of two, has served in the cabinets of all three recent Conservative prime ministers: David Cameron, Theresa May and Johnson.   

As a 12-year-old, she moved with her parents to the Vancouver area and spent a year in elementary school in Burnaby,  an experience that she claimed in a tweet "changed her outlook on life" — although she has never elaborated on precisely how.

Sunak, 42, has celebrated his immigrant roots as the son of African-born Indians. After graduating from Oxford University, he went on to land big jobs at investment banks, such as Goldman Sachs.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson looks at plans for the Sizewell C nuclear power plant during his visit to EDF's Sizewell B nuclear power station in Sizewell, England, on Thursday. (Chris Radburn/Reuters)

He's also Britain's richest member of Parliament, according to The Sunday Times "rich list." His wife, Akashata Murty, is the daughter of an Indian billionaire. 

For much of Johnson's tenure as prime minister, Sunak was seen as the heir apparent, until too many self-inflicted Johnson scandals led to him resigning as chancellor and calling for the prime minister to resign, too.

Sunak's move was seen as the death blow to Johnson's leadership. 

WATCH | Boris Johnson steps down as British prime minister after years of scandal:

Boris Johnson resigns as PM after years of scandal

9 months ago
Duration 5:06
In front of a jeering crowd, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson struck a defiant tone while announcing his resignation after a run of scandals throughout his tenure.

After that, Sunak's chances of taking over the top job himself appeared to fade.

"[Conservatives] see Rishi Sunak as a betrayer," said political scientist Anand Menon of Kings College London.

"He was preparing for his leadership campaign months before Johnson resigned. So I think that decreased his popularity."

The ultimate goal, of course, is for the new leader to win the next general election, which must be called before January 2025. Right now, the odds for another Tory win have not seemed as long as any other time during the party's 12 years in power.

Removal vans are seen at Downing Street in London on Aug. 15. (Maja Smiejkowska/Reuters)

Labour, under leader Keir Starmer, has consistently held a double-digit lead and has pledged to freeze people's energy bills and make up the difference by taxing energy companies and richer Britons.

"If after a few months that lead shows no signs of diminishing, then once again questions will be asked about the Conservative leader and the prime minister," said Twyman of Deltapoll. 

Finally, the new leader will struggle to emerge from the shadow of Johnson, who despite being turfed by his MPs in Parliament remains popular with the rank and file.

In the lead-up to Monday's leadership results, British media have been playing up stories about a possible "comeback" should the new person in charge fall flat.

Johnson has added credibility to the rumours by refusing to explicitly rule out another run at the top job,  and hasn't indicated how much longer he plans to remain as an MP. 

"What we've seen is an evolution of opinion," said Twyman. "Many people, while they still do think it was right that he resigned, when it comes to his replacements, they've definitely failed to convince."

"Indeed, when you ask the public who would be the best PM out of Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss or Boris Johnson, it's Boris Johnson who wins out."


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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