Theresa May's run as British prime minister is ending, and so the U.K. finds itself at yet another electoral crossroads. May's replacement will have three months — really just 30 working days — to achieve what she couldn't in three years: find a viable path out of the Brexit mess. Given the circumstances, we might soon come to view the election's loser as its real winner.
Two candidates are vying for the job. The former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, is set to face his replacement, Jeremy Hunt. Being placed opposite Johnson makes one the serious candidate by default, but in reality, neither of them warrant optimism.
Let's start with Hunt. From 2012 to 2018, Hunt led the National Health Service. That time was marked by the Tory austerity program launched by former Prime Minister David Cameron and ardently maintained by May. In that era of reduced government spending, Hunt did incredible damage to the NHS. He thought it a good idea to have the NHS "expand to provide seven-day services so that more patients get the best care when they need it." Sounds like a noble goal, if only it had been given any sort of funding with which to deliver. Having doctors work nights and weekends meant higher costs, of course, but Hunt's solution was to pay doctors weekday wages for these "unsociable hours." Junior doctors — those with up to 14 years of service — fought back against the removal of the extra pay, as well as the loss of their scheduled pay increases. In the end, Hunt's attempt to provide more with less led to the first strike in NHS history to impact the delivery of emergency, maternity, and intensive care services. In practice, Hunt's maneuver was either an exercise in magical thinking or a straightforward attempt to euthanize the NHS.
When the coalition government of Tories and Liberal Democrats took control of Parliament in 2010, they lowered the bar for emergency health-care performance. Results continued to worsen when Hunt took charge in 2012. At the same time, the number of NHS hospital beds dropped, meaning some 8,000 fewer beds were available for patients. This might help explain the shift in emergency care performance: You can't move people from the emergency room to hospital beds that no longer exist. That the beds were gone was a deliberate choice: While NHS funding grew between 4 and 9 percent annually under the stewardship of the Labour Party, it averaged around one percent from 2010 to 2015 under the Tories. Three leading think tanks agree that NHS funding needs to increase at least 4 percent a year to keep up with demand. Despite a growing, aging population, the Tories chose to dramatically slow the rise in funding for the health service on Hunt's watch.
Caroline Molloy, the editor of OurNHS, sums up Hunt's leadership as "one of missed targets, lengthening waits, crumbling hospitals, missed opportunities, false solutions, funding boosts that vanished under scrutiny, and blaming everyone but himself." Hardly the sort of meritorious service deserving of promotion to the global stage.
If Hunt is a poor candidate, then what about Johnson?
A month ago, I detailed the multifarious reasons Johnson is unfit for the job of prime minister. Since then, it's almost as if he's gone out of his way to confirm my assessment. As he readied himself for hustings, Boris had something approximating a knock-down-drag-out brawl with his partner. That quarrel was so loud, violent, and disruptive that the police were called. Some of the neighbors thought a murder was in progress. If this is how Johnson behaves in the run-up to becoming PM, what might follow?
How he'll treat the U.K. citizenry remains an open question. But Johnson's treatment of Kim Darroch, the embattled and now former ambassador to the U.S., seems telling. Leaked diplomatic cables from Darroch embarrassed President Trump, and Johnson was given ample opportunity to back Darroch, but instead chose to side with Trump. He threw his country's own ambassador under the bus for doing his job, and in doing so, showed his willingness to hold Trump's pocket. A Prime Minister Johnson could further degrade the foreign service's ability to properly do its job.
There's even been talk of Johnson "proroguing" Parliament — effectively hitting the pause button on democracy — in order to force a disastrous no-deal Brexit through.
Perhaps the most disheartening fact of all is that none of this really matters, given the electoral process: Just 0.3 percent of the electorate — largely old, white, and male — is expected to decide the next prime minister for the rest of the nation.
Indeed, liberal democracy is in a bad place. And it seems the U.K. is set to be worse off when this race is over. Unfortunately, for 99.7 percent of U.K. voters, the matter is already out of their hands.