Truss v Sunak: What is unusual in the race for UK prime minister?

It is not unusual for a foreign minister and a former chancellor to compete to take on the top job – but the current political drama in the UK is exceptional in other ways.

(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on July 12, 2022 shows Britain's Foreign Secretary Liz Truss
Britain's foreign secretary Liz Truss (L) arriving to attend the weekly cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street, in London, on April 19, 2022, and Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak leaving 11 Downing Street, in London, on March 23, 2022 [Daniel LEAL and Tolga Akmen/AFP]

In the United Kingdom, the next prime minister will either be the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, or the former chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak. These are the two politicians who will compete over the summer for the leadership of the governing Conservative Party.  The result of the party poll is expected in the first week of September.

In some ways, the current political drama in the United Kingdom is unexceptional. It is common for there to be a change of prime minister between general elections. Indeed, every prime minister since 1974 has either taken or lost office between general elections or both.

And it is not unusual for the potential successors to be serving or former senior cabinet ministers. In 1955, 1957, 1963, 1976, 1990, 2007, 2016 and 2019 the politician becoming prime minister between general elections held (or had recently held) one of the so-called “great offices of state” of foreign secretary, chancellor of the Exchequer, or home secretary. It is true that Sunak is not currently chancellor, as he was one of the dozens of ministers who resigned before the outgoing prime minister, Boris Johnson, announced his resignation, but subject to that proviso, it would not be unusual for a former chancellor to become prime minister.

The current political drama, however, is significantly different to the previous transfers of prime ministerial office. Never before has a prime minister resigned following mass resignations of other ministers, to the point that some government departments did not have ministers in the House of Commons.

And in two televised debates between candidates for the party leadership, many contenders denounced all or part of the government’s record and its economic policy. Such criticism even came from current ministers, who are supposedly bound by the doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility.

So what is unusual here is not that there will be a new prime minister between general elections, or that the successor is (or was) a senior minister. It is that the authority of the office of prime minister itself has collapsed. The new prime minister not only will be taking over but also has to rebuild the credibility of the office itself.

And the new prime minister only has a limited time to do this. A new general election has to be called by the end of 2024 and has to take place by January 2025.

The current parliament is more than halfway through its current term.

The Conservative Party has been in government since 2010. At the 1964, 1997 and 2010 general elections, voters turned against the then-governing parties with the sense that it was “time for a change”. It is more likely than not that the same will happen again. This is especially the case when the main opposition party is largely united and focused, as it is now.

The new prime minister will therefore be under intense political pressure to somehow secure re-election at the impending general election, as well as having to establish their authority in office and put in place new policies.

This would be an extraordinary political test even for the most remarkable of politicians. Few observers think either of the current contestants for the premiership is such a politician. This means between now and the next general election it is likely that the political drama will continue.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.