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Sensemaker: Situation vacant

Sensemaker: Situation vacant

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Shinzo Abe, Japan’s former prime minister, died after being shot twice at a campaign event (more below). 
  • Germany’s largest residential landlord will reduce heating for tenants at night to counter a crunch in Russian gas supplies. 
  • Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini, once among the most powerful people in football, were acquitted of fraud by a Swiss court.
  • A 76-million-year-old Gorgosaurus dinosaur skeleton is expected to fetch up to $8 million when it goes up for auction this month in New York.

Key number: £192.68, the cost per day of Boris Johnson’s premiership for refurbishing the Downing Street flat.

Situation vacant

Boris Johnson is gone – almost. He wakes up this morning still in place at Downing Street, hosting cabinet meetings and reportedly planning a wedding bash with his wife Carrie while he waits for a successor to be selected. 

When a change of leader is not the consequence of a general election, it’s standard practice for the outgoing prime minister to remain in power until a replacement is selected by the governing party. Theresa May did so in 2019, as did David Cameron three years before. 

At yesterday’s Tortoise Democracy summit, there was much talk of the haziness of British constitutional conventions. So it is perhaps no surprise that there is no clear rule-book for how to perform the constitutionally curious role of not-quite-ex-prime-minister. The closest guide in the Cabinet Manual is the advice on how to behave before an election: keep your head down and make no major decisions unless the national interest is at stake.

Amid the howls of protest that Johnson does not have the character to be caretaker and should leave immediately – led by former prime minister John Major – his would-be successors are circling. They are many and varied. They include Liz Truss, the foreign secretary likely to frame herself as Boris 2.0, who is flying back early from a G20 meeting in Indonesia.

Former chancellor Rishi Sunak has set up a temporary leadership campaign office in a Westminster hotel, according to the Mirror’s Pippa Crerar; Tom Tugendhat, a former soldier, has pitched himself as ready to “serve” the nation in an opening bid in the Telegraph. Ben Wallace, the defence secretary is currently leading the pack in a YouGov poll. 

First steps Any Conservative MP can stand for the top job. Around a dozen will get enough signatures from their colleagues to be formally nominated before a series of secret ballots among MPs to whittle the pack down to two. The last pair standing then face a vote by the party membership – between 100,000 and 150,000 people – to decide the winner. This time round, the two candidates are expected to be confirmed before July 21, when Parliament breaks for summer.

It is just conceivable that, given the urgency of the situation, the rules could be changed to cut out the membership ballot entirely. There are precedents of a sort: May was not formally endorsed by the membership in 2016 after her final opponent, Andrea Leadsom, dropped out. Michael Howard was elevated to the leadership unopposed in 2003. But it would be a dangerous experiment to exclude the party members, many of whom still adore Johnson, from the vote to choose his successor. 

Clean the scene There will be hustings at every stage as candidates waft pheromones first towards their fellow MPs and then towards the party membership. As a first step, candidates will predictably pledge to restore trust in both the Conservative party and in politics more generally after three years of scandal, rule-breaking, dishonesty and all-round mayhem under Johnson. There will be talk of tightening up procedures on sexual harassment and drinking, and perhaps even of filling the vacant post of independent advisor on the ministerial code. 

Where do you stand Though the politics of the moment are huge, the party will not reward candidates who propose big shifts in policy – they are still Conservatives and candidates have to appeal to a more right-wing party these days after the purges of Remainer and moderate Tories in 2019. Key issues to watch include:

  • Tax and spending: “The next leader of the Tory party will not want to be seen by the party’s electorate as a big spender,” Tortoise’s Matthew d’Ancona notes. “Conservative MPs want low taxes. And I don’t detect any enthusiasm anywhere for higher borrowing.” Already, the knives are being wielded: Jacob Rees-Mogg, the minister for Brexit opportunities and a Johnson loyalist, described Sunak yesterday on Channel 4 as a “high-tax chancellor” who was “not alert” to the inflationary problem. 
  • Brexit: Brexit isn’t done. No candidates will reverse course, but they will all have to read up on the Northern Ireland protocol as they decide what kind of Brexit they want. “Penny Mordaunt [trade secretary] will go much more for the buccaneering UK plc variety,” d’Ancona notes, while home secretary Priti Patel will lean on border controls.
  • Cost of living: Petrol prices went up every day in June and food costs are soaring. The Conservatives are at the halfway mark between elections and need a leader who can tackle an inflation rate that is at a 40-year high.
  • Net Zero: The net zero transition could be in danger, with candidates facing calls to slow down deploying renewables such as onshore wind. One source tells Sensemaker Liz Truss is seen as particularly sceptical – in her first speech as foreign secretary at Chatham House, an international affairs think tank, there was only one reference to climate. Rishi Sunak has been lukewarm on measures to decarbonise the economy.
  • Global Britain: Johnson was as sincere as he can be in his whole-hearted military and financial support for Ukraine, which will continue with new Tory leadership. A harder line on China, outlined by the UK’s domestic security chief this week, is also possible – Tugendhat is particularly hawkish on this front. 

Watch your back Johnson is not happy at being forced out of Downing Street. His speech betrayed his sense of bitterness: “when the herd moves, it moves”. Rather than pledging his full support to a successor, Johnson merely said he would offer “what I can”. Comparisons with Donald Trump may be overdone, but they share an ability to antagonise and haunt their party after leaving office – and both could harbour plans for a comeback. 

We don’t know if Johnson will remain as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, where he has a majority of 7,210. We do know he will focus on making money, from book deals, journalism and public speaking. Churchill, long Johnson’s lodestar, came back into office after six years. Them’s the breaks – but the breaks can change.


Shinzo Abe shot dead
Shinzo Abe, Japan’s former and longest-serving prime minister, was assassinated while giving a speech in Japan, sending the country into shock. The country’s state broadcaster said Abe, 67, died in hospital after being shot twice during a parliamentary campaign event in the western city of Nara. ​​Security officials at the scene tackled the gunman, 41, who is now in police custody. Gun crime in Japan is historically rare – as are politically motivated attacks. Speaking before Abe’s death was announced, Fumio Kishida, the country’s leader, condemned the shooting as “absolutely unforgivable”.


Working from home
It’s a well-worn fact that the covid pandemic ushered in a new way of working. Pre-covid, around 5 per cent of employees in the EU regularly worked from home; that increased fourfold in some countries. Many now want an expansion of workers’ rights to allow greater flexibility going forward, and in the Netherlands that’s coming true: the country will introduce legislation to give workers the right to request home working. Companies will have the discretion to say no, but they’ll have to give a valid reason. The law was approved by the lower house of the Dutch parliament this week and requires sign-off from the Senate, but once it passes the Netherlands will be among the first countries to have such a law on its books. Ireland introduced its “Right to Request Remote Work Bill” earlier this year and Germany, France and Portugal are considering similar legislation. 


As leading e-cigarette manufacturer Juul appeals attempts by regulators to restrict their products in America, a new report highlighted the reach of vape advertising on social media to children in the UK. For the first time, annual YouGov polling, conducted with smoking campaign group Ash, asked children and teenagers about vape advertising. Forty-five per cent of those who had viewed online e-cigarette promotions said they appeared on TikTok, while 31 per cent saw them on Instagram. It is illegal in the UK to sell e-cigarettes to under 18s and TikTok have repeatedly said they remove social media accounts that promote vaping. But the head of the Independent British Vape Trade Association has called the platform “the worst offender” for not removing content quickly. Vapes may be a safer alternative to cigarettes, but safer doesn’t necessarily mean safe – especially for children. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Abortion shutdown
The Mississippi abortion clinic at the heart of the legal case which led to the US Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade has closed down. It was the last remaining clinic in the state. The Jackson Women’s Health clinic is now moving operations to New Mexico – a state that has legally protected the right to abortion. The largest clinic operator in Texas, Whole Women’s Health, is laying similar tracks to other states as they aim to maintain abortion provisions post-Roe. But for some women, the cost and time needed to travel will be impossible. Separately, anti-abortion legal groups are making plans to block interstate travel to access abortion services. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Keeping the lights on 
France’s government is renationalising energy giant EDF in a bid to bring soaring energy prices under control. France was in an energy crisis even before Russia invaded Ukraine, and the war has made things worse. EDF’s nuclear power infrastructure, the principal source of France’s electricity generation, is ageing – over 50 per cent of its nuclear capacity is offline due to issues with corrosion – but efforts to build more have been delayed and run over budget. EDF is deep in debt – €43 billion in the red – and that will rise as government price caps have kept tariffs well below the market rate. President Emmanuel Macron has announced plans to build six more nuclear reactors by 2050, a scheme which will require significant investment and inevitably more debt. Nationalising the company might keep the lights on a little longer – but the losses will keep on mounting.

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us who you think should be the next British prime minister. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Jessica Winch

With additional reporting by Phoebe Davis and Ella Hill.

Photographs Andrew Parsons/ No 10 Downing Street, Getty Images

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