Britain’s summer has been baking and listless in the main, weeks of bright, wan sunshine, unbroken by rain or any particular hope. In July, southern England received a thimble’s worth of rain—a shade over a centimetre—the least since records began, in 1836. On August 12th, a drought was declared in eight regions, and people were banned from washing their cars. There has been a monotony to the heat, an uncanny continuance, which has seemed to connect to a deeper apathy toward the country’s frightening immediate future. Britain’s economy is failing. The Bank of England has predicted that inflation will reach thirteen per cent in October, its highest level since the early eighties. A recession may be coming. People’s heating and electricity bills are rising at a speed that no one can quite believe. The nights are hot; the children can’t sleep.
Boris Johnson, in character to the last, is spending his final weeks as Prime Minister in decompression mode: throwing a wedding party, vacationing in Slovenia and Greece. The mass resignations that led to his downfall in July mean that there is barely a functioning government, let alone a plan to address the crisis, or any authority to deliver it. Instead, there is a prolonged Conservative Party leadership contest, in which around a hundred and fifty thousand Party members, or 0.32 per cent of the British electorate, are currently choosing the next Prime Minister. The winner will be declared on September 5th, at which point, you would assume, someone will have to start running the place again.
In the meantime, parts of the United Kingdom are breaking down. Since June, the London Underground and the national rail network have been disrupted by rolling strikes led by the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers. The R.M.T. has rejected pay offers that fall short of inflation. They are not the only ones. The gap between wage growth and price rises is at its widest since comparable records began, just over twenty years ago. Last week, around eight hundred workers staged a sit-in at the canteen of an Amazon warehouse in Essex, to protest against a thirty-five-pence-per-hour (or three-per-cent) pay rise. The G.M.B. union said that protests spread to at least five other sites, with some employees working slow, picking one parcel an hour. The cost-of-living crisis, as it is known, has spread everywhere, and its principal symptom is the same: people cannot cope. Milk prices have gone up by twenty per cent since last year, gas by forty per cent. A recent survey of food banks found that almost eighty per cent were running low on food themselves. “To give out packs of breadcrumbs and a tin of chickpeas is heartbreaking,” William McGranaghan, the manager of Dads House, a charity in West London, told the Independent earlier this week. “We’re struggling—we just can’t keep up with the numbers.”
Later this month, there are strikes scheduled by funeral services, refuse workers, the Royal Mail, examination-board staff, and dockers. Members of the Royal College of Nursing, which was founded in 1916, are voting on whether nurses in England, Scotland, and Wales should withdraw their labor for the first time in the union’s history. The National Health Service, which was recently awarded the George Cross, the highest civilian award for bravery, by the Queen, for its efforts during the pandemic, is already overwhelmed. More than six and a half million people (that’s the equivalent of around fifty Conservative Parties) are currently on waiting lists for hospital treatment, an increase of fifty per cent on pre-pandemic levels. No one knows what will happen if the nurses walk out.
Around half of the inflationary pressure in the U.K. comes from rising energy prices, which are largely a consequence of the war in Ukraine. Since 2019, there has been a price cap, which is now updated every three months by the country’s energy regulator, to protect consumers from blatant profiteering. But the cap only moves one way. Last winter, it was set at £1,277 per year, for an average household. Earlier this month, analysts projected that the cap could almost quadruple—to £4,266—by the spring of 2023. According to the I.M.F., the poorest twenty per cent of British households will soon pay a higher proportion of their income on energy (around fifteen per cent) than any other population in Europe, except Estonia’s. “This is a national crisis, on the scale that we saw in the pandemic,” Martin Lewis, a financial journalist and consumer advocate, told the BBC last week. “We are currently in that position where we are watching the beds in European hospitals and doing nothing about it.” Around a quarter of families already owe more than two hundred pounds to their electricity providers, according to Uswitch, a price-comparison Web site, and that is before the next price rise has come into effect. Gordon Brown, a former Labour Prime Minister, who was in office during the financial crisis, has called for the government to take control of the energy market. Keir Starmer, the current Labour leader, has proposed that prices stay where they are for at least six months, with the government paying the difference—an intervention that would cost around twenty-nine billion pounds.
But the person who is almost certain to be Britain’s next Prime Minister has made it clear that she will do neither of those things. Polls put Liz Truss, the country’s Foreign Secretary, twenty-two points clear of Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose resignation helped start the cascade that buried Johnson. Truss, who is forty-seven, has been a Cabinet minister for eight years, during which she has stayed on message—whatever the message—every day. She campaigned against Brexit before fervently coming round to the idea. As Foreign Secretary, Truss has borrowed style choices from Margaret Thatcher, arranging to have herself photographed riding a tank, and projected a vaguely confrontational energy to the world. Truss likes freeports, low taxes, and the way Chinese schools teach math. (Her father was a math professor). In 2012, she was a co-author of “Britannia Unchained,” which argued that British workers “are among the worst idlers in the world” and the country was held back by a bloated state and excessive regulation. Truss believes in what she calls “Conservative economics.”
In the contest to succeed Johnson, Truss has positioned herself as the change candidate. “The last twenty years of economic policy haven’t delivered growth,” she says, which is a bold contention given that her party has been in charge for twelve of them. Truss’s ideas to address the country’s worrying inflation rate and unaffordable energy bills include tax cuts, fracking, and the suspension of a climate-change levy—a package that would be worth just over a hundred and fifty pounds to most families and probably make inflation worse. She opposes “handouts.” Rather than speak about the single thing on every voter’s mind, Truss prefers to display her no-nonsense credentials by supporting Britain’s immoral plan to deport refugees to sub-Saharan Africa and trying out some culture-war material. “As a straight-talking Yorkshirewoman, I know that a woman is a woman,” Truss told a party hustings in Darlington last week. A few days later, she published a plan to deal with a “woke civil service culture that strays into antisemitism.”
The whole experience must be disorienting for Sunak, who until recently had the largest support among Conservative Members of Parliament and led the government’s economic response to the pandemic. At the end of 2021, Sunak was the most popular politician in the country—with a higher approval rating than either Johnson or Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party—and the bookies’ favorite to become the next Prime Minister. His own plan to limit the misery this winter is to make direct payments to poorer families—the extension of a grant program that he began, as Chancellor, in the spring. “If we don’t do that, I can tell you not only will millions of people suffer, we will get absolutely hammered when it comes to an election,” Sunak said last week. “The British people will not forgive us for not doing that.” Sunak used to work for Goldman Sachs. He is almost freakishly spry. He bounces on his toes and seems delighted to be in whichever suburban retail park he is visiting at any given moment. (At the peak of his popularity, as Chancellor, Sunak was all about hoodies and late nights poring over official documents). But he appears to have been fatally punctured as a candidate, among the Conservative Party base, at least, by his perceived disloyalty to Johnson and his own extreme metropolitan tendencies. (Sunak’s father-in-law is Narayana Murthy, an Indian tech billionaire). In recent days, three Conservative M.P.s who previously supported Sunak have publicly defected to Truss, citing the inevitable momentum of her campaign.