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Sensemaker: Leaderless in London

Sensemaker: Leaderless in London

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Trump said his Florida home was raided by FBI agents, apparently in search of classified papers (more below).
  • Eight people died in floods caused by Seoul’s heaviest rains in 80 years.
  • Dame Olivia Newton John died of cancer, aged 73.

Leaderless in London

Can Britain function in a leadership vacuum when leadership is sorely needed? It is finding out.

As growth stalls, inflation spikes and a 70 per cent uplift to the energy price cap looms, there is:

  • no chance of decisive action by Boris Johnson because he has forsworn major policy initiatives as a lame-duck prime minister;
  • no chance of an emergency budget signed off by his two potential successors because they have ruled it out;
  • no new prime minister until 5 September; and
  • no help on offer for struggling households from Johnson’s probable successor, Liz Truss, who promises tax cuts instead.

The sense of limbo arises because of Johnson’s forced resignation announcement last month. It was exaggerated last week by his absence on a delayed honeymoon in Slovenia. His chancellor and the leader of the opposition were away too, and this week the two people fighting to succeed him, instead of pitching to the UK’s 46 million voters, are wooing 160,000 Conservative party members about whom the party volunteers no information and is not required to. 

The members. Despite Conservative Party HQ’s best efforts to keep its membership data private, this much has been established by academics at the Party Members Project: Tory members are 96 per cent white, 66 per cent male, 68 per cent over 50 and about 15 per cent more likely than average to earn over £50,000 a year. 

The serenades. This may help explain why Liz “no handouts” Truss and Rishi Sunak skew hawkish in their remedies for a recession forecast to start in the fourth quarter and last at least a year:

  • Truss is comfortably ahead in polls of party members despite / because of her promise of immediate tax cuts, starting with the scrapping of the national insurance contributions increase that was a centrepiece of Sunak’s last budget. Income tax cuts would follow but would “make little or no difference to low-income households,” the Resolution Foundation’s Torsten Bell tells the FT
  • Sunak promised £400 per household to help with energy bills as chancellor and now says he would add to that as PM to take the sting out of an expected £1,716 October energy price cap rise. But in Tunbridge Wells last week he boasted of diverting public funding from “deprived urban areas” to “make sure that areas like this are getting the funding they deserve”.

The siren. Beyond the Conservative echo chamber, household names are trying to cut through with the theory that this leadership race is taking place against the background of a cost of living emergency that warrants non-partisan government intervention for the sake of the worst off. Gordon Brown says this is the week to pre-empt the “financial timebomb” due to detonate in October. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, says the paralysis in London has to stop. Tony Danker of the CBI says the country can’t afford this “summer of inactivity”.

That has a ring to it. Older Tories might even make a mental connection with the winter of discontent that served as Margaret Thatcher’s prelude to power. This difference is 43 years and a 180-degree difference in prognosis. Dominic Raab, the deputy PM and a Sunak supporter, has helpfully spelled it out: Truss’s strategy of doing nothing for the poor now and cutting taxes for the rich in the autumn would be an “electoral suicide note”.

Truss, as usual, says she’s been misrepresented. A Truss win next month followed by a bracing supply-side response to the downturn is nonetheless the single most likely sequel to this month without a leader. 

It gets worse. Yesterday Norway said falling water levels in its reservoirs would mean cutting power transmissions to the UK next spring. That could push energy prices beyond £4,000 per household. Brace, brace.


Publishing’s mega-merger
The US publishing industry is in the dock as the country’s justice department (DOJ) attempts to block a $2.2 billion merger between publishing giants Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. The antitrust suit, due to conclude by the end of next week, claims that the merger will reduce competition, lower author advances and “give Penguin Random House outsized influence over who or what is published.” The US market is heavily concentrated in the hands of five major publishing groups and PRH already dominates: across the current New York Times top ten bestseller lists for paperback fiction and paperback nonfiction, nine out of 20 titles are from their imprints – adding in books published by Simon & Schuster would bring the total to 14. Author Stephen King, who testified in support of the DOJ’s case last week, told the court that without competition between publishers bidding for books “it becomes tougher and tougher for writers to find money to live on.” PRH claims the acquisition will increase efficiencies, creating savings that the company can use to pay authors more. 


Ukraine nuclear warnings
Fears are growing of a nuclear disaster at a Ukrainian nuclear power plant, which with six atomic energy blocks producing electricity and six basins of nuclear waste is almost twice the size of Chernobyl. Shelling at the Zaporizhzhia plant at the weekend left it damaged but operational, with both sides blaming the other for the attack. UN nuclear chief Rafael Grossi has called for international inspectors to be given access to the site, which is Russian-controlled but operated by Ukrainian staff, saying the situation at Europe’s largest nuclear plant “is completely out of control”. The head of Ukraine’s national energy company appealed for the area to be demilitarised, which would also stop Russia using the site as a shield to launch missiles into neighbouring areas. A UK nuclear expert at Imperial College London said the Zaporizhzhia reactors were robust – but any attack on a nuclear plant is “suicidal”, says UN chief Antonio Guterres. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Dental pain
Post-pandemic shortages in NHS dental appointments have led many in the UK to seek alternative – and often unsafe – treatment methods. A BBC investigation recently found that only 1 in 10 dental clinics across the UK are currently taking new adult patients. In some towns, like Blackpool, there are no appointments at all for new patients. For those who cannot afford private dental services, this has meant months or even years of untreated pain. According to Healthwatch England, it is “not unusual” to hear of desperate patients using resin and superglue to create false teeth, and pulling their own teeth at home without anaesthesia. Shawn Charlwood, chair of the British Dental Association, says: “NHS dentistry is at a tipping point”. In its place, inspired by reality TV stars and TikTok influencers, the “Turkey teeth” trend has led some to travel abroad for bargain dental procedures. But the treatments are frequently more invasive and lead to more complications than advertised. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Kenya’s elections
William Ruto, a leading candidate in today’s presidential election in Kenya, has been campaigning in a canary yellow stretch SUV with a slogan on the door that reads: “Every Hustle Matters”. Ruto, 55, who has been deputy president for nine years, is presenting himself as the “hustler” candidate who will be the champion of the poor. His opponent, Raila Odinga, is a 77 year-old veteran politician making his fifth bid for the presidency. Unusually, the country’s current president Uhuru Kenyatta is backing Odinga rather than his own deputy, in what is seen as a tight race in the largest economy in East Africa. So far, human rights monitors say that concerns about election-related violence are low (some 1,400 people died in violence after a disputed vote in 2007, while 16 people were killed after the most recent election in 2017). Kenya is seen as a bastion of democracy in a difficult region – which is why a transparent and peaceful transfer of power matters so much. 


FBI raids Mar-a-Lago 
Even by the norm-shattering standards of Donald Trump’s presidency, an FBI raid on his Florida resort Mar-a-Lago is a remarkable development. Trump said in a statement that the property was “under siege”, accusing the Democrats of weaponising the US justice system to stop him running for president in 2024. “They even broke into my safe!”, he fumed. The search is reportedly linked to documents Trump took from the White House that may have been classified – which should have been sent to the National Archives. But searching a former president’s property is highly unusual and would need approval from a federal judge. Trump is being investigated over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, as well as other state-level criminal and civil inquiries. It’s not the first time he’s been linked to mishandling official documents; the NYT’s Maggie Haberman says documents were dumped in toilets at the White House (a claim denied by Trump).

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what you think. Send an email to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Nina Kuryata, Asha Mior, Ella Hill and Jessica Winch.

Photographs Getty Images, Neil Hall/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

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