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What's next for the U.K. in 2023, after a tumultuous 2022

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

2022 has been a tumultuous year for the United Kingdom, marked by major changes at the top of British institutions.

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HUW EDWARDS: A few moments ago, Buckingham Palace announced the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

SHAPIRO: This was also the year that No. 10 Downing Street became a revolving door, as the country had three prime ministers in less than two months.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: After one of the most dramatic weeks in British politics, Boris Johnson was forced out of the top job after nearly 60 MPs quit his government.

SHAPIRO: And now, as December runs out, the U.K. faces a series of strikes by immigration officers, nurses, postal workers and rail workers. To explain what happened in Britain this year, NPR's London correspondent, Frank Langfitt, is here. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: The departures of the queen and Boris Johnson were obviously very different events involving two very different characters. But I want to talk about the impact of these two larger-than-life figures leaving the stage, beginning with the queen.

LANGFITT: Yeah. You know, Ari, the queen - as you know because you covered the United Kingdom - the death of the queen creates this big vacuum. She was more popular than the monarchy itself and much more popular than her son, King Charles, who's now 74. And so the royal family now sort of faces this generational challenge, how to remain relevant when it's most popular and unifying leader is no longer there.

SHAPIRO: And how would you rate the first three months of King Charles' reign?

LANGFITT: You know, he's doing better than expected. And I would say, Ari, as you know, expectations were not that high in September, but we've seen a jump in support, in part because simply he's now king. So soon after his mother's death, the percentage of people who thought he would make a good king has nearly doubled from 32% to 63% in one poll. Now, you know, this month has been rockier for the royals. Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, the duchess of Sussex, they dropped that six-part Netflix series that some people might have seen. And there was - a lot of it was spent criticizing the royal family.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, I've heard a lot of discourse about that series. How did the royal family respond to it?

LANGFITT: You know, Ari, it was kind of classic royal family. They didn't respond. They sort of went along business as usual. The day after the final three episodes dropped, King Charles - he visited a Jewish community center in London.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

LANGFITT: And here he is dancing with Holocaust survivors, including the stepsister of Anne Frank, which, in a way, was kind of the royal family's response, which is, you know, when it comes to criticism, sometimes they think the best thing that they can do is just do their jobs.

SHAPIRO: Dancing to a tune from "Fiddler On The Roof" there. So the king is enjoying a bit of a honeymoon in the polls. But what is the likelihood that such a privileged white old man can represent an increasingly diverse country like the U.K.?

LANGFITT: Well, Ari, there are clear limits as you point out. I mean, that said, I was talking to a guy named Sunder Katwala. He's the director of British Future. It's this think tank that looks at issues of race and identity. And he says he thinks Charles is making the right kind of steps. He's reaching out to people from different faith and ethnic backgrounds, just like what you saw there at that community center in London, and showing support for a more multicultural Britain. Here's Katwala.

SUNDER KATWALA: For the king to be a source of bridging or unity, he's actually got to be more proactive. I think by getting out and showing that the crown wants to be a source of cohesion in British society when our politics are quite divisive and quite clashing and quite polarizing will be well received by quite a lot of people.

SHAPIRO: OK. So let's talk about those divisive, clashing, polarizing politics. It was only a few years ago that the British political brand was steady, predictable governance. How's that going?

LANGFITT: Really badly, Ari. Boris Johnson, of course, forced from office over the summer, and the reason was he was known - well-known in the country for lying often throughout his career. But he lied to Parliament about these parties that were banned by his government's own COVID rules during a partial lockdown. Now, after Johnson resigned, members of the Conservative Party, they chose Liz Truss. She tried to solve what is a $67 billion budget gap by lowering taxes. The markets rebelled. The pound tanked. And this is how Britain's ITV described the situation at the time.

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TOM BRADBY: It has been a night of astonishing scenes at Westminster, with reports of jostling, manhandling, bullying and shouting outside the parliamentary lobbies in a supposed vote of confidence in the government. In short, it is total, absolute, abject chaos.

LANGFITT: Now, Ari, as probably a lot of people would remember, Truss was actually forced out after just about six weeks. That's the shortest tenure of a prime minister in British history. And she famously did not outlast a wilting head of lettuce. It was shown in a parody online video stream. Now enter Rishi Sunak. He's the new prime minister, former chancellor of the Exchequer, has a better finance background and sort of a more realistic approach. He's talking about major tax increases and spending cuts. The Conservative Party, they're now still about 20 points behind the Labour Party, and there's an election probably going to be in 2024. The Conservatives are still expected to lose that, and that would be after 14 years in power.

SHAPIRO: So how do you explain the revolving door that No. 10 Downing Street became and what that tells us about the ruling Conservative Party in British politics?

LANGFITT: Well, you know, the real questions here, Ari, about how the party chooses its leader. Remember, Truss was elected by just 81,000 Conservative Party members, and this is in a country of 67 million people. Patrick Dunleavy is an emeritus professor of politics that I know at the London School of Economics. And he says, you know, rank-and-file party members in the Conservative Party, they tend to skew older, and they're not representative of the country, nor does he think they're particularly good judges of politics or economics. This is how he put it.

PATRICK DUNLEAVY: You know, the whole incident of Liz Truss coming into power, appointing a not very well-known person as chancellor, pushing through a whole series of unfunded tax cuts and a budget without any economic forecasts and then having to tear it all up within four weeks, that is a very good example of what happens when you don't have checks and balances in your constitutional system.

LANGFITT: And there's this other conflict between more conservative membership of the party and more pragmatic parliamentarians. And this goes back to at least the Brexit vote. Here's Tom McTague, who writes about British politics for The Atlantic.

TOM MCTAGUE: Referendum in 2016 that provided a surprise result that the government did not expect - nobody in Parliament expected, nobody in Parliament wanted. And so they were left holding this baby that they didn't know what to do with.

SHAPIRO: It's really striking, Frank, how often talk of British politics returns to the impact of Brexit. It's been just about three years now. How is it going?

LANGFITT: Not well, Ari. You know, there was a recent survey. More than three-quarters of firms say the U.K.'s post-Brexit deal with Europe isn't helping them in terms of increasing sales. There's another survey - 56% of people now say it was a mistake to leave the European Union, with only 32% still supporting Brexit. I was talking to Matthew Goodwin. He's a political science professor at the University of Kent. And here's what he says the country's in store for.

MATTHEW GOODWIN: Without any doubt, this sense of regret has become a more prominent feature of British political life. There will be a growing political pressure to turn this public opinion reality into something at the ballot box, calling for a much closer relationship with the European Union.

SHAPIRO: So, Frank, are there any silver linings to all of these clouds that you've been describing?

LANGFITT: Yeah, there is one, I'd say, prominently, and that is after leaving the EU, the United Kingdom was once again kind of looking for a place on the international stage. And it found one in the war in Ukraine, pouring a lot of weapons into Ukraine, training Ukrainian soldiers here in England and really taking a really robust position on one of the major events of the year.

SHAPIRO: So what are you looking ahead to in 2023?

LANGFITT: I think it's going to be interesting to see what happens with King Charles' coronation. That's going to be in May. And it's an opportunity to rally the country around, you know, a new monarch. Rishi Sunak's made it really clear that he wants to work with the royal family to improve the U.K.'s image during the coronation. And he and the royals, I think, hope to put this year behind them.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. I hope your new year is quieter and calmer than the old one.

LANGFITT: Thanks, Ari. You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.