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British Prime Minister Liz Truss fires her finance minister

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Britain's prime minister is in a familiar position today - trouble. This time it's Liz Truss, who's been in the job fewer than six weeks. Truss had to reverse a pledge on tax cuts after financial markets went haywire. At a press conference this afternoon, reporters repeatedly asked her if she would resign. She refused. For more on the latest turmoil in British politics, we turn to NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Frank, this was a very quick U-turn. How did Liz Truss get herself in this position? Remind us.

LANGFITT: Yeah. She ran on a platform of massive tax cuts that she, in fact, didn't really have a way to fund. And so financial markets became extremely worried about rising U.K. government debt. The pound collapsed. People here saw the financial turmoil as really threatening things like their pensions, raising mortgage interest rates. So this was a crisis, Sacha, that actually was very palpable for the ordinary person. And today Liz Truss fired her treasury secretary even though he - she had worked with him on this tax cut plan. They worked on it together. And she reversed course, saying she would actually raise corporate taxes. This is what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER LIZ TRUSS: I have acted decisively today because my priority is ensuring our country's economic stability. I want to be honest. This is difficult, but we will get through this storm.

PFEIFFER: Frank, what does this backtracking do to her party, the Conservative Party?

LANGFITT: Well, you know, this was the thing that helped get her elected by the rank and file in the party. And I think it really undermines the Conservative Party's brand, which has been economic competence. And you combine that with the scandals of Boris Johnson. Of course, he attended these parties during COVID lockdown, had to resign back in July. And conservatives are now 30 percentage point behind the opposition Labour Party, with an election expected to come in 2024. I was talking to a guy named Tony Travers. He's a professor of government at the London School of Economics, and he doesn't think Truss is long for No. 10 Downing Street.

TONY TRAVERS: I think it's going to be very difficult for her to survive. And the reason for that is that many of her MPs, possibly almost all of them now, fear they might lose their seats at the next general election. And that is an incredibly powerful driver of their behavior.

PFEIFFER: The Conservative Party in Britain has been in power a long time. But...

LANGFITT: Yeah.

PFEIFFER: It's really been churning through prime ministers lately. Why don't they last long?

LANGFITT: Well, I think that, you know, the old British brand of government was solid but a bit boring. And we've had these four prime ministers, really, since 2016, and that started with the Brexit vote. I don't think that's an accident. Brexit split the country and also split the Conservative Party. And the party's folk is probably, in some ways, more on fighting each other and less on governing. And, you know, for years the Conservatives didn't really have to worry too much about competition from the opposition Labour Party. This is how Tony Travers put it.

TRAVERS: The fact that Labour had an unelectable leader for five years in Jeremy Corbyn encouraged a less disciplined approach to politics by the Conservatives.

LANGFITT: And that meant more infighting and maybe, to some degree, some of the behavior we saw in Boris Johnson's government.

PFEIFFER: Britain has an important part on the world stage, so how does this affect its effort to keep its place there?

LANGFITT: Well, I think all the turmoil over the last few years has really forced the country to look inward more, and it certainly damaged its global reputation. But I don't think in the short run, this turmoil really is changing international policy. There is a political consensus here on the war in Ukraine. The U.K. has been one of the biggest arms suppliers. And I was just out in the south of England this week watching British soldiers training a couple of hundred Ukrainian soldiers to go back and fight the Russians back in the south and in the east of Ukraine.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Frank, thank you.

LANGFITT: Good to talk to you, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as the war in Ukraine and its implications in Europe. Langfitt has reported from more than fifty countries and territories around the globe.