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Tuesday, 18 October 2022 05:50

[OPINION] Liz Truss and the Lessons From Britain - Reuben Abati 


What is going on in Great Britain right now is ironic. A few weeks ago, we celebrated the same Britain on account of the glory and grandeur of the life, times, example, and the death of Queen Elizabeth II – the country’s longest reigning monarch in history and one of the most influential figures of the 20th and 21st Centuries. But today, the same Britain is the laughing stock of the world, all because of leadership, politics, and mismanagement of the economy. The Empire may have ended, but Britain remains one of the most powerful countries of the world, a country that others look up to, a member of the G7, with London as a major centre of capital and investment in the Eurozone. 


But something has happened to them in that same Great Britain - to try an African manner of speech. The other day, the IMF/World Bank, the Bretton Woods Institutions, before and at their annual meeting in Washington DC were forced to express concern about the UK economy and the trickle-down economic policies of the Liz Truss administration – 49p cut in tax rates for the rich, proposed increase in corporation tax, cutting of benefits and spending, and no clear thoughts about how the cuts would be funded – all of which could spur growth, theoretically, but would result in inflation and poverty. The IMF most unusually broke away from tradition and openly criticized a G7 economy. It got so bad that even the Greek Prime Minister is offering to help Britain if it needs advice on how to manage the economy. The German Ambassador in London is also, against diplomatic protocols, putting his mouth in the matter. We can add to this insult upon the injury situation, the fact that President Joe Biden of the United States while buying and licking ice cream at a shop in Oregon, US took time out to comment that the turmoil that Britain now faces was predictable because nobody funds growth. “with unfunded tax cuts.” From ice cream shops to the hallowed halls of Washington DC, Britain has become the butt of jokes with implications for diplomacy, business, investments, leadership and the markets. 


But it seems to me that rather than laugh at the current British leadership, there are lessons that can be learnt from their experience, precisely the chaos that the country is currently facing. On this same page, we acknowledged the British and praised the fact that Boris Johnson, former British PM and others had to lose their positions and offices because the system out there resolved that those in positions of leadership cannot set one set of rules for themselves and another set for the people that they lead. Bo-Jo and gang had to go because they used official privilege to break the law, and the people objected. This led to a new round of leadership selection within the Conservative Party. If this were in Nigeria, however, Boris Johnson would still be in office. His kith and kin would have played the ethnic and religious card, in fact, he himself would have hired thugs to break up any attempt to challenge him. But the British held firm and pushed him and all the law breakers out. On this same page and elsewhere, we praised the British when the Tories launched a leadership contest to find a replacement for Boris Johnson as new leader of the party and new Prime Minister. It was a keenly contested race, elimination round by round, which eventually produced four front-runners including Nigerian-born Kemi Badenoch- Chief Femi Adegoke’s daughter- but in the end Liz Truss won, with Rishi Sunak a close second. We felt we had seen democracy at work. The party had decided. The Tories had moved beyond Boris Johnson. 


It is in the nature of politics that nothing is ever certain and mistakes can be made. During the Tories campaign, the major issue was what to do with the British economy. The war in Ukraine with Russia had up-ended everything: Britain was faced with a cost-of-living crisis, high energy prices and rising inflation.  Liz Truss who became the frontrunner promised to fix the economy by cutting taxes for the rich, scrap planned increase in corporation tax and cut spending; reverse national insurance rise, cut energy bills, delay payment of COVID debt, curtail the powers of the Bank of England, take on the Northern Ireland Protocol, scrape regulations post-Brexit, reduce UK dependence on China and so on. Sunak, who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer, promised that he would also cut taxes, but only after getting runaway inflation under control.   He dismissed Truss’s plans as unworkable, supported lower taxes in the long term, promised VAT cuts on energy bills, 4 per cent cut in income tax by 2024, and increase corporation tax. He condemned Truss’s BoE proposals, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, Rwanda deportation plan, and promised not to engage Putin, but he would oppose China, and close down Chinese Institutes. He ruled out second Scottish independence referendum. In the last lap of the race, both leading contestants told 175, 000 voting Tories that they could do the job. In the end, the party chose Mary Elizabeth Truss, 47, former Foreign Secretary and Member of Parliament for South West Norfolk since 2010 as leader of the party and Prime Minister. On September 5, 2022, she became the fourth Tory Prime Minister in six years since David Cameron, 2010 -2016, Theresa May, 2016 -2017, and Boris Johnson, 2019 – 2021. 


She has spent only six weeks in office and now, the popularity that brought her to power has vanished. Even Prince Andrew is more popular than her in the polls. If a general election were to be called today, the Conservatives would lose by a landslide, the Labour Party being ahead in many constituencies. How did Liz Truss go so quickly in less than 50 days from being the people’s favourite to becoming so unpopular, a Prime Minister whose political future hangs in the balance, and who may end up as the shortest-serving Prime Minister in British History? Her Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng is already the shortest ever serving Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was sacked on Friday as the scapegoat for the turmoil into which Britain has been thrown. Truss has presided over a chaotic Conservative Party conference. She has lost the support of business, investors, members of her own cabinet, and the people. Over the weekend, members of her party told the public that the game was up for her. Sir Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee of Back Benchers was detailed to tell her the truth. It would be a miracle if she survives the crisis, having lost credibility – an important asset for a Prime Minister.   


The death of Trussonomics is a cautionary tale.  Politicians must learn not to over-promise. The British have proven that you cannot come to the people, promise Heaven and Earth and hope you can get away with whatever you throw at them. Truss promised the people growth. He appointed Kwasi Kwarteng as Chancellor. But the growth plan in form of an emergency plan, or mini-budget presented by the government simply complicated things: sell-offs in the bond market, uncertainties with the pound sterling, further rise in the cost of living and a gaping black hole in government finance, with a rise in the cost of debts, and mortgage. In a country where accountability is key, no politician can hoodwink the people and play games with the people’s fortunes and future. Liz Truss and Kwarteng could not tell anyone how the huge deficit would be funded. In Nigeria, the story would have been that the critics are jealous or that they are of a certain ethnic extraction. The simple lesson is that politicians must learn not to over-promise. Nigerian politicians promise heaven and earth. They promote manifesto and covenants that even the principal candidate has neither read nor seen. When they are taken up on the issues later, they are ever ready to say they never heard of such a policy. Every major stakeholder in the UK is attentive. Position and power come with responsibility and accountability. Andrew Bailey, BoE Governor whose independence Truss was threatening to curtail is now gloating and blaming Kwasi Kwarteng for “flying blind”.  He even had to step in with the Bank’s brief intervention and now he says interest rates would go up higher than expected from 2.3% to 3.5%. He is taking his pound of flesh, as it were. In Nigeria, even in the midst of a similar turmoil, he would have been fired. The system would have found something to hang on his neck and shut him up. Spokespersons loyal to the government of the day would have torn him to pieces with disparaging press releases. But Bailey and the Bank of England are not being targeted because it is clear to the British that Truss and Kwarteng flunked Economics 101 and brought the people greater misery. 


Kwasi Kwarteng, the Ph.D in Economic History wonder kid, and brainy master of University Quiz who served briefly as Chancellor has been fired. He had to leave the IMF/World Bank meeting in Washington DC earlier than scheduled, and his return flight was one of the most tracked flights in recent history. He had boasted that he was not going anywhere, and that his economic plan was secure. What we have seen is that the job does not belong to him. It belongs to the British people. You may say he has been fired because someone has to take the fall, but the truth is that the British run a system where nobody is rewarded for inefficiency or misconduct. While I understand the position that Truss herself should go, having placed the future of the Conservative party in peril, the point for us as Nigerians is that if this had been in Nigeria, Kwarteng’s position that he was not going anywhere would have prevailed. People in powerful positions in Nigeria behave as if is a hereditary privilege for them to enjoy proximity to power. They get appointed not because of their knowledge or proven competence but because of who they know. When they fail, they are sustained by the same factors. The British system self-corrects because its institutions are strong. The Nigerian system self-destructs because its institutions are either weak, compromised or non-existent.   


In the midst of the. political, economic and social turmoil, PM Liz Truss has now gone to appoint Jeremy Hunt as replacement for Kwarteng.  Hunt supported Rishi Sunak in the race for the PM’s office. Last weekend, he granted an interview in which he dismantled and buried Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget. Yesterday at the House of Commons, he did further damage. He ditched the government’s mini-budget that was announced three weeks ago. When the PM showed up at the Commons, she was quiet. Jeremy Hunt, who has little experience in economic matters was practically pushing different ideas. On October 31, it would be his duty to present the much-talked about fiscal plan. Hunt’s appointment is the equivalent of running to the friend of your opponent to help you. In Nigeria and other African countries, that would never happen. Our leaders here are so egoistic, they only see the world in a binary scope of friends and enemies. Sacking Kwarteng and bringing in Jeremy Hunt is a last-minute attempt by Truss to save her position. We are reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s Team of Rivals. When you think you are perplexed, look for the best people wherever they may be, including among the ranks of ideological opposites, if possible. In Nigeria, our leaders are only interested in sycophants and rent-seekers. Can you imagine a man who supported a rival being given a Minister of Finance position and then he goes to parliament, as Hunt has done, to throw the same government’s policy under the bus in less than one week of his appointment? I can bet such an appointee’s name will never appear on Nigeria’s national honours list! In fact, his house could be set ablaze. His wife may be abducted! 


But would Jeremy Hunt’s recruitment help? Our gut feeling is that so much damage has been done in six weeks, it would take businesses, the market and the sterling quite a while to recover. When a country like Great Britain goes through so much turbulence as we are seeing, then we need to be more careful in these parts. We need to pay better attention to our leadership recruitment process. Our leaders must not only be 21st century compliant, they must be voted for and chosen only because they know what to do. If Nigeria had found itself in Britain’s situation, there would have been too much talk about the fact that Britain is in the hands of young people in their 40s, but the focus there today, is not age, but ideas and the workability of ideas. We need to pay attention to this. 


Finally, too many Nigerians have become adherents of “the Japa phenomenon” – the standard euphemism for emigration away from Nigeria in search of greener pastures. The grass they say is greener on the other side, but not always as we can now see. In Britain today, families are worried they won’t be able to pay for gas during winter to heat their homes and keep warm. Many families can no longer afford three square meals. The people are rebelling because they think the government has no clue. Things are so bad that on Sunday, there was power-outage on Elland Road during the match between Arsenal and Leeds. The match had to be delayed for 40 minutes. It could be worse during winter as National Grid and Ofgem have warned. If you want to “Japa” to the UK, you may need to go with your “I-better-pass-my-neighbour generator”. In Paris, France, the people are queuing for fuel, with oil company workers behaving like members of our own NUPENG and PENGASSAN here. So, if you are thinking of relocating to France, it may help to go with your fuel keg and hose. The world has gone mad but leadership still makes the difference. 

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