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The U.K. is waiting to see who will become its third prime minister this year


You've seen them - all the lettuce jokes out of the U.K. comparing Liz Truss' short time as prime minister to the shelf life of a head of lettuce. In the lead-up to her resignation, a livestream from the British tabloid newspaper The Daily Star captured the world's attention - a head of iceberg lettuce, wearing a blond wig and googly eyes, next to a photo of the embattled prime minister. The caption asked, will Liz Truss outlast the lettuce? Well, she didn't. When Truss announced her resignation just 45 days into her time in office, the lettuce celebrated its win with British flags and star lights, and Truss became the shortest-serving prime minister in British history.

Well, we've got the man who inspired all these lettuce jokes when he made that first comparison in the pages of The Economist. Andrew Palmer is the Britain editor at The Economist, and he joins us now. Good morning, and welcome to the program.

ANDREW PALMER: Good morning, Leila. Love to be here.

FADEL: So all lettuce jokes aside, let's talk about why Liz Truss' tenure was such a mess.

PALMER: Yes, she is now possibly the worst prime minister we have ever had. That will be a debate for historians. But really, the thing that blew her up was a big minibudget, which she unveiled along with her chancellor on September the 23. It was a package of unfunded tax cuts. There was no clear sense of how it would be paid for. The financial markets took fright. And ever since then, she's had to sort of systematically U-turn, and that shorts her authority. Over time, her ability to control her party disintegrated. And by yesterday, it became clear that there was absolutely no point to Liz Truss, and she had to resign - so a very brief and very unsuccessful tenure.

FADEL: Is she to blame alone, though, for the financial situation? It is a time where inflation is a problem across the continent, as are rising prices.

PALMER: That's totally fair. It is difficult globally at the moment. However, what Ms. Truss and her chancellor decided to do...

FADEL: Yeah.

PALMER: ...Was embark on a borrowing spree at the point that inflation was rising. So they stuck their heads above the parapet with a really, really risky fiscal strategy and in so doing made themselves a target. So it is true that interest rates are rising everywhere. It is true that cost of living is under threat and under pressure across Europe. But they absolutely exacerbated it. And there is now a premium on British government debt, which is referred to in the markets as a moron premium, and that has been caused by what the British government did a few weeks ago.

FADEL: So what does this now mean for the Conservative Party, now a divided party, having to choose yet another prime minister? We're hearing the names include Boris Johnson, who had to leave in scandal, and Truss replaced him. What does it mean for the party?

PALMER: Yeah, the party is really in a kind of spiral at this point. They've been in power for 12 years. There's a sense of exhaustion around them. Ever since the Brexit vote in 2016, it's been riven by factionalism, and there's been a premium placed on ideological purity about Brexit. We are going to have had, you know, three prime ministers in the space of a matter of months very, very shortly. And it's not clear that whoever the new person is will be able to unify this group. It's a very, very factional, unhappy party at this point. The only thing keeping it together is, you know, a sense that to go through this again would be totally ridiculous, and the pressure from the markets. They have to come up with a credible fiscal plan under the new leader. And that pressure will concentrate minds.

FADEL: Do they have the public's trust, though, at this point with the chaos, with the political and financial chaos?

PALMER: Absolutely not. That has been sacrificed. The opposition Labour Party has a huge lead in the polls, and if there was an election now, the Tories would be facing a landslide defeat. They would have a crushing, crushing loss. However, the election timetable is in their gift, and they don't have to call one until as late as January 2025. It's possible that one could happen earlier if enough Tories decide that their government is so kind of inept and so bad for the country that it's worth bringing on their own demise. But at the moment, we're not quite there yet.

FADEL: So let's talk about what happens next. What is the process now to choose the next prime minister, and how likely is it actually that Boris Johnson would come back?

PALMER: Yes, the Johnson word. So we have a very accelerated timetable now. So what happens is that by Monday, candidates within the parliamentary party have to have got at least 100 nominations to enter the race. That's a very high bar. And what that means is that there's only a maximum of three can be in the race come Monday. It is possible that only one hits that bar, so we might know as soon as Monday who the next prime minister is. If, however, we get to two people who go head to head, then Tory party members will decide, and they must decide by the end of next week. So come what may, whether it's early or at the back end of next week, we will know who it is.

And as for who leads Britain next, Mr. Johnson is definitely in the frame. A lot of people feel that he was unfairly turfed out for various misdemeanors, dishonesty, for throwing parties during the lockdown era. They also think that he's a proven election winner and that he has a mandate because he was in charge of the government last time there was a general election. On the other hand, he's very, very divisive, and his chances of holding the party together are slim. So the other person to look out for is Rishi Sunak, former chancellor exchequer, came second to Liz Truss over the summer, fiscally prudent and would probably reassure the markets. It's probably down to those two.

FADEL: Andrew Palmer is the Britain editor for The Economist. Thank you so much for your time.

PALMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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