In two weeks we will know who will be Britain’s next prime minister. The question will not be answered by general elections, but by approximately 150,000 members of the UK’s Conservative Party. For the past two months we had to listen to the remaining two candidates, ex-chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, trying to ingratiate themselves with a crowd guided in their thinking by Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph editorials and always ready to prioritise myths over facts.

The showdown between the lead candidates on TV and at party hustings was an unedifying affair. Real world problems concerning the UK and the world were either studiously avoided or addressed in meaningless posturing. To be ‘tough’ on Russia and China is meaningless, or even counter-productive, when we have an intricately difficult situation to tackle.

To compete for plebeian credentials seemed funny when both contenders grad­uated in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford colleges, and tragic when neither is ready to alleviate a cost of living crisis, or to turn ‘levelling up’, the Tories’ lofty promise to tackle class privilege and inequality, into a reality.

Both prime minister hopefuls have studied economy, and both had dabbled in the finance ministry, Truss as chief secretary to the Treasury and Sunak as chancellor. Yet both were ready to bin their economic knowledge for the love of their electors.

It has to be said that Truss did less backtracking. She didn’t have to, as she seems to have abandoned economic thinking already when leaving university. Complaining at a 2014 Tory party conference about the “disgrace” that most food in the UK was imported, she gave her infamous, mercantilist ‘cheese speech’, claiming that the UK produced a greater variety of cheese than the French.

Hysterically chafing at foreign apples and pears, she readily ignored the fact that the British Isles might be at a climatic disadvantage, or that free trade since Adam Smith is understood to be bene­ficial to all sides. That British farmers might be better off with Europe’s cheap, seasonal workers, free trade, or the EU’s generous subsidies, is better not mentioned. While in David Cameron’s government, Truss had obediently voted to Remain – a position she now regrets: “I was wrong”. Why?

Truss, posing on photo-shoots for Twitter and Instagram at least four times a day, enjoys the advantage of being seen as bird-brained and “demented” (former Australian PM Paul Keating). Nobody was taken by surprise when, as a foreign secretary, she located the Baltic states on the shores of the Black Sea and the Russian city of Voronezh within the realm of Ukraine. Her willingness to send British volunteers to war in Ukraine and to sable-rattle: “we will keep going further and faster to push Russia out of the whole of Ukraine” is therefore taken lightly.

This is also why her tax and spending proposals have so far alarmed almost nobody. Had Sunak suggested them, as someone who we’d expect to know what he is talking about, they would have been greeted with much animus. Cutting taxes for corporations and high income earners may have been seen as class-villainous.

Both were ready to bin their economic knowledge for the love of their electors- Andreas Weitzer

Other of Truss’ proposals, economically irrelevant or harmful, but box-ticking for Tory members, include the scrapping of the Ireland Protocol, a “no” to a new Scottish referendum, a mandated, full divergence from EU standards, low-tax investment zones (a perennial with Tories), a “temporary” expansion of seasonal workers’ permits (don’t come too often), easier mortgage access (did anyone ask the banks?), mandated service for strikers and vindictive ballot thresholds (welcome to a new wave of strikes).

Truss also promises to “revisit” the Bank of England mandate fighting exorbitant inflation. As she promises unfunded, fiscal largesse, like the reduction of national insurance contributions and a higher defence budget, the Bank’s task to reign-in inflation will be just that much harder. Better to blame the ‘unelected’ central bankers already now for the inflation-induced loss of income.

Her idea to find tax savings by short-changing public servants produced a rare, public outcry and an immediate U-turn. Her – long-held – idea was to save almost nine billion pounds by cutting the pay of civil servants, nurses, police officers and the armed forces living in areas more affordable than London. It would have resulted in a pay cut for more than five million people, unfortunately living also in conservative-voting counties. Did she forget about the judges? High time to cut them to size!

Rishi Sunak, who started off ‘mansplaining’ Truss on the principles of taxation, justice and inflation, soon decided to join Truss on the having-the-cake-and-eat-it train, long ridden by his former master Boris Johnson. After reasonably arguing that reducing VAT on energy was socially unjust as it profits also the wealthy, and would not lead to price reduction in the long run, nor help to reduce consumption, he carved in and promised temporary reductions – embarrassing for someone of his stature.

What should have made both candidates ineligible was their shared past in a government wantonly flouting democratic norms and standards of decency. The BBC, one of the world’s most preeminent, independent broadcasters, was threatened with de-funding. Judges were branded enemies of the people. Parliament was send home to not interfere with the executive, and independently-minded MPs defenestrated.

The civil service, envied for its expertise and sense of duty, was purged of its brightest. The final withdrawal agreement with the EU was called into question as soon as it was signed by Johnson. Under the banner of Covid, thieves and cronies often in cahoots with Conservative politicians misappropriated £17.5 billion of public funds dispersed by Rishi Sunak unapologetically.

While the candidates battled for the sympathies of the party faithful, three crucial, political topics were studiously avoided:

The NHS, the UK’s public health provider, is underfunded, overworked and close to collapse. Around 6.5 million UK citizens are currently waiting for urgent treatment. Admissions to A&E can’t be helped for up to 12 hours.

The current energy crisis, triggered by post-lockdown demand surges and Russia’s war on Ukraine, waged now too on European energy consumers, has to be tackled in context of the vastly bigger crisis we are facing, the meaningful survival of our species on an over-heating planet. This makes cooperation with unsavoury regimes a priority, as opposed to grand-standing.

Both Sunak, the Leaver, and Truss, the fanatically converted, studiously try to ignore the elephant in the room, i.e. how to recalibrate relations with the EU in a more meaningful way.

While Truss as the UK’s trade-cheerleader proudly copied a handful of EU trade agreements with far-away countries as if transport costs and cultural idiosyncrasies would not exist, most of them moderate in size (no agreement with the Solomon Islands, so far), and boasted of her pork and tea sales to China, she found no time to think how trade could be boosted with Europe.

With inflation rampant, the overriding task should be – Brexit or not – to facilitate the frictionless exchange of goods and services with the European continent to bring prices down.

At the same time the emotionally charged question where to locate the EU border would be defused, avoiding the impossible decision whether to cut Ireland in half or to better separate Northern Ireland from the UK.

This was the concept of the short-lived Theresa May government. It is time to resuscitate it. I fear the new British PM is not up for the job, whoever it is. It is time the UK Labour opposition found the will to win an election. In the meantime, as retail investors, we should treat the British Isles, its currency, its gilts and bonds and its domestic businesses with caution.

Andreas Weitzer is an independent journalist based in Malta.

The purpose of this column is to broaden readers’ general financial knowledge and it should not be interpreted as presenting investment advice, or advice on the buying and selling of financial products.

andreas.weitzer@timesofmalta.com

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