The U.K. will have 5 prime ministers in just 6 years. What’s gone wrong?

by | Oct 20, 2022 | Top Stories

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Prime Minister Liz Truss delivers her resignation speech as her husband, Hugh O’Leary, stands nearby at Downing Street in London on Thursday. Truss has been prime minister for just 44 days.

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Rob Pinney/Getty Images

LONDON — The United Kingdom used to be synonymous with stable, dependable, if sometimes dull, governance. But the resignation Thursday of Prime Minister Liz Truss — after six weeks in office — shows just how chaotic British politics has become in recent years. Truss is the fourth prime minister to resign since the Brexit vote of 2016. That’s the fastest turnover in a century. No. 10 Downing Street has effectively become a revolving door.

What’s the matter with Britain? Analysts here say it is a story of polarization, populism, a flawed political system and poor leadership that has at times put party and personal ambition above the good of the country. A miscalculation of historic proportions It begins with former Prime Minister David Cameron who called a referendum on leaving the European Union. Cameron hoped the vote in 2016 would end a civil war inside his own Conservative Party on Britain’s relationship with Europe and keep the party in power.

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Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne deliver a speech on the potential economic impact to the U.K. of leaving the EU, at a B&Q Store Support Office, on May 23, 2016, in Chandler’s Ford, England.

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It was a miscalculation of historic proportions. The British people voted to leave the EU by a small, but convincing margin. The result not only highlighted Britain’s bitter divisions, but also changed the course of the country’s foreign, economic and trade policies. Most political scientists and economists predicted that leaving the EU would make this island nation poorer and politically less relevant.

It immediately became clear that the architects of the Brexit vote, including its most effective campaigner, Boris Johnson, had no real plan for untangling decades of economic and legal ties with the EU. Political chaos followed. Cameron resigned after the referendum and Theresa May became prime minister. In another major miscalculation, she called a snap election in 2017, only to lose her party’s control of the House of Commons.

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British Prime Minister Theresa May holds a Cabinet meeting to discuss department-by-department Brexit action plans at the prime minister’s country retreat Chequers in Ellesborough, England, on Aug. 31, 2016.

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May repeatedly tried to drive a Brexit deal through parliament, only to be foiled in part by the anti-European wing of her own party which wanted a clean divorce from Europe. Brexit eventually brought May down as it had her predecessor. The party then turned to Johnson, the charismatic if deeply flawed showman who had a track record of winning elections. He campaigned to “get Brexit done.” Johnson led the party to a landslide victory in 2019. The next year, he completed the U.K.’s departure from the EU and seemed poised to rule for years. The fantasy: Scandinavian welfare at American tax levels Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which Johnson underplayed, until he ended up in an intensive care unit with the virus. His government’s slow response to COVID led to more than 200,000 deaths — the highest toll in Europe — and drew heavy criticism. But what ended Johnson’s premiership was his lying.

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