Liz Truss | Promises to keep, an emotional vacuum to fill

New U.K. Prime Minister is tasked with responding to the energy crisis, enacting supply-side reforms to boost growth, revitalising the Conservative Party and also leading the nation in mourning a monarch

New U.K. Prime Minister is tasked with responding to the energy crisis, enacting supply-side reforms to boost growth, revitalising the Conservative Party and also leading the nation in mourning a monarch

If there is one person that the newly minted United Kingdom Prime Minister Liz Truss would probably wish to have a quiet conversation with during her first week in office, it is Tony Blair, the former Labour Prime Minister. Mr. Blair set alight the imagination of a nation mourning the sudden death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a 1997 car crash in Paris, when he described her as the “people’s princess.” At a time when the royal family faced criticism for lacking in its public response to the tragedy, Mr. Blair’s words brought solace to the British people and established his credentials as a leader attuned to pulse of the nation.

Ms. Truss now faces similar circumstances, with the passing of the country’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, upending the Prime Minister’s well-laid plans for her early days at 10 Downing Street. Those plans include an estimated £100 billion package intended to cap skyrocketing energy prices at their current level, a fiscal intervention whose size has few past precedents except in wartime. The Truss government will also launch, in weeks ahead, a comprehensive response to the looming challenge of the wobbly U.K. economy, likely including tax cuts, eschewing “handouts,” enacting supply-side reforms to boost growth, and bolstering with resources the struggling National Health Service and the defence sector.

Yet these policy imperatives may have to play second fiddle, in a political sense, to the collective emotional needs of a nation once again mourning the death of respected member of the royal family. Can Ms. Truss, who was in the presence of the Queen earlier this week after she won the race to be the country’s next Prime Minister, rise to the challenge? A glance backward at her path to higher office through many years in the trenches of the Conservative Party suggests that she has the personal and leadership traits that might just help her accomplish this.

Indeed, if there is one strength that Ms. Truss has demonstrated in the past, it is the sheer adaptability of her politics, her flexibility of political posture in response to big-picture expediencies. For example, in the early years of Ms. Truss’ political career, she started out as a member of Liberal Democrats Party, a great political distance to the position she currently occupies.

Born in 1975 in Oxford to a mathematics professor father and nurse mother, Ms. Truss has described her parents as “left-wing,” recalling the many discussions on political activism at their family dining table. When she was still young, she attended alongside her mother marches for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, “an organisation vehemently opposed to the [former Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher government’s decision to allow U.S. nuclear warheads to be installed at RAF Greenham Common,” not far from London.

After finishing school in Leeds in the early 1990s, Ms. Truss went on to read philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford University — considered to be the classic route to the prime ministerial chair in the U.K. — where she also became president of the university’s Liberal Democrats. Her liberal politics clearly ran deep at the time for she also on the record spoke at a Liberal Democratic conference in favour of abolishing the monarchy. Yet by the end of her time at Oxford she jumped ship to the Tories, an act that is said to have come as a shock to her left-leaning parents but one that some of her friends recognised as a natural philosophical progression given that she was a “market liberal.”

Thatcher’s image

Ms. Truss’ transformation into a hardcore Conservative came several years further down the road, when, as she rose through the ranks, she carefully started cultivating an image akin to that of Ms. Thatcher’s, from dressing like the “Iron Lady” of British politics did to mirroring a famous picture of Ms. Thatcher in Germany in 1986 by posing in a Challenger 2 tank while visiting British troops in Estonia, when she was the U.K.’s Foreign Secretary.

The other major transition that Ms. Truss underwent in her political position was regarding her switch from being a diehard Remainer on Brexit to becoming former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s frontline warrior to negotiate the terms of post-Brexit trade deals with the European Union. In doing so, she adopted a confrontational stance over plans for the Northern Ireland protocol, a tactic that made her popular with the hard-line wing of the Conservative party. Regardless, the Ms. Truss’ government will face a challenge on this front on September 15, when they are required to respond to EU legal action on the alleged failure to implement this protocol.

Ms. Truss’ critics have often described her as a political “chameleon” or “shape shifter” with a pragmatic edge. Her most recent handling of the saga of Mr. Johnson’s exit certainly does point to her changeable politics. While she was astute enough to steer clear of the Conservative coup that led to Mr. Johnson’s ouster from Downing Street, she managed nevertheless to avoid being labelled as an unshakeable Johnson supporter, a fine distinction that paved the way for her subsequent rise to the top job.

Future challenges

Doubtless a future challenge that Ms. Truss will have to deal with is the fact that in the contest for the prime ministerial chair against former Chancellor Rishi Sunak she secured the backing of 81,326 of her party’s members, while her rival garnered 60,399 votes. This was a far narrower margin than expected and represents less than 50% of Conservative Party members, given that nearly 20% of them did not vote. This means that now Ms. Truss will have to convince a substantial proportion of her party members that her approach to tackling the multi-pronged economic and energy crisis in the country is the optimal one. This would apply to her the major policy initiatives that she has spoken of so far, which include her plan to introduce £30bn in tax cuts, reversing the rise in National Insurance, temporarily dropping green levies on energy bills, and scrapping a planned rise in corporation tax.

In the broader canvas of British politics, there is an urgent need for revitalising the Conservative Party and underscoring its capability in terms of dealing with the post-Brexit world to the advantage of the British people and U.K. businesses. This also involves helping the party escape the reputational quagmire of sleaze scandals that held back the Johnson government and, in today’s context, genuinely representing the spirit of the nation as it mourns the loss of Queen Elizabeth.

For Ms. Truss, her greatest learning at 10 Downing Street might be that while her political flip-flopping may proffer certain advantages, it can sometimes come with a high cost. It could well be that in the highly visible role of Prime Minister, Ms. Truss finds that voters hold her to a higher standard, one that is premised on dogged commitment and holding firm to promises made.


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