It could hardly be a more dramatic start to Liz Truss’ tenure as Britain’s latest prime minister.
Barely 48 hours after being formally invited by Queen Elizabeth II to become premier, she found herself faced with the unsettling news Thursday that the beloved 96-year-old monarch had died — an event that instantly plunged the country into grief. Truss and her fledgling Conservative government must now manage the mourning, as well as a complicated, security-laden, emotional state funeral expected to draw heads of state from around the world.
At the same time, the new prime minister is faced with urgent problems that could quickly boil over into full-blown crises, including runaway energy prices, soaring inflation and Brexit-induced questions over the future of Northern Ireland and Scotland within the United Kingdom.
Whatever Truss, 47, might have envisioned for the start of her premiership, it certainly would not have been the combined challenges — and heavy pressure — that now assail her.
“With her plans for her first days in office thrown so dramatically off course, expectations of her, from within the [Conservative] Party and among the wider public, will be higher than ever,” wrote Pippa Crerar, the political editor of the Guardian newspaper. The stakes for Truss, she added, “have never been higher.”
A rally-round-the-flag effect — a burst of national unity produced by the queen’s death — could temporarily buoy Truss. Many of her compatriots are focused on pulling together to come to grips with the death of the only monarch most of them have ever known and to adjust to their new one, King Charles III.
At such a crucial political juncture, however, analysts predict that the sense of solidarity generated by days of emotional farewells to Elizabeth will carry Truss only so far.
Austerity cuts over the last decade have left crucial British public services including healthcare, criminal justice and education “on their knees,” Nick Witney, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in a commentary on the organization’s blog as Truss assumed office.
“Trade and foreign investment have slumped since Brexit,” Witney wrote. “COVID has emptied the exchequer [treasury]. Britain’s growth and inflation prospects are worse than almost every other Western industrialized country. And now, dwarfing all else, households and businesses throughout the land are gazing at the coming tsunami of rising energy costs with no idea how they will survive it.”
Already, Britain has been effectively leaderless in the two months since Truss’ predecessor, Boris Johnson, was forced to resign over a series of ethics scandals and to serve as a lame duck prime minister until a successor was chosen. Parliament has been mostly paralyzed while the cost-of-living crisis ballooned, gas prices skyrocketed and Britons grew fearful over how to get through the coming winter.
The queen’s death now means a further slowdown of some of the workings of government, with parliamentary business suspended during a 10-day mourning period.
The official pause could actually help Truss if she plays it right, said Anand Menon, professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London.
Truss, he said, has “got to deal with the complication of the funeral and mourning. But on the other hand, she’s got a week or so where she’s not the story, and that would have been inconceivable had this not happened.”
If Truss navigates the situation well, she could come across as a healer, much as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair did when the nation reeled from the 1997 death of Princess Diana in a car crash. But Truss’ public performance to date has been somewhat stiff and formal, short on the kind of stirring oratory at which both Blair and Johnson excelled.
Before the queen’s abrupt final decline, Truss’ camp had briefed journalists on the planned public rollout this week of the new government’s agenda — a high-profile campaign now derailed. One element of that plan did emerge just hours before the queen’s death was announced, as Truss unveiled a $173-billion package to freeze consumers’ energy bills.
But Truss must also deal with the most punishing economic effects of Brexit, the 2020 departure from the European Union that was narrowly approved by voters four years earlier. Economists say the full repercussions of breaking with the bloc, which were masked somewhat by the COVID-19 pandemic, will put an enormous drag on Britain’s finances.
Brexit has also thrown Northern Ireland into chaos because of the effect on the U.K. region’s border with the Republic of Ireland, a nation that remains an EU member. The issue has gone unaddressed by Truss’ Conservative predecessors.
And Scotland — where Elizabeth died at her much-loved summer retreat, Balmoral Castle — is led by an administration intent on calling a second referendum on independence.
Some of the public reminiscences about the queen, intentionally or not, were a pointed reminder of an exclusive club of which Truss will never be a member: the long line of British leaders who had weekly audiences with Elizabeth throughout her 70 years on the throne.
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Although held in private and wrapped in mystique, these encounters between queen and prime minister so captivated the public imagination that they were the subject of a popular play, “The Audience,” by Peter Morgan, which was the seed for his blockbuster Netflix series, “The Crown.”
The monarch is supposed to remain above the political fray, but in their dealings with the queen, some prime ministers clearly developed a deep appreciation for the wit, warmth and wisdom of a woman who had decades more experience of public service and had seen governments rise and fall. Premier after premier has spoken of the value and relief of having discussions on matters of state that they knew would never be leaked to the media.
Truss spoke late Thursday by phone with King Charles III and met with him in person Friday, but there was little sense of what sort of personal relationship might evolve between them. Charles presents himself with considerable reserve, with little of the mischievous humor the queen at times displayed.
Former Prime Minister Theresa May, Johnson’s predecessor, drew affectionate laughter from lawmakers with a touching tribute Friday in which she recounted a potentially awkward episode at Balmoral.
May described helping with preparations for a picnic, during which she placed some cheese on a plate and was carrying it to the table when the cheese slid off and fell to the floor.
“I had a split-second decision to make,” May recounted. “I picked up the cheese, put it on the plate and put it on the table.” Then she turned and saw that the queen had been watching her every move.
“I looked at her. She looked at me. And she just smiled,” the former prime minister said. “And the cheese remained on the table.”
Special correspondent Boyle reported from London and staff writer King from Washington.