Liz Truss Takes Britain’s Helm Amid Stormy Seas

Just before noon on Sept. 5—Labor Day in the U.S.—the dark-suited figure of Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee (composed of Conservative backbench members of Parliament), stepped forward to the podium of a not-full conference room at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre, in London, to announce that his party had a new leader, and thus the nation a new prime minister.

It was a peculiarly British performance. After reading aloud some of the contest’s interminable rules and regulations, Brady remarked simply that Rishi Sunak had received 60,399 votes from the party’s membership, and that Liz Truss had received 81,326 votes. “Therefore I give notice that Liz Truss is elected as leader of the Conservative and Unionist party.” No one waved banners or broke into song, and less than 10 minutes later, the audience quietly filed out into the pale British autumn sunshine. The transfer of power was effectively concluded.

The following morning, the 47-year-old Truss, until then the government’s foreign secretary, in what might seem ludicrously modest circumstances by U.S. presidential standards, set off to kiss hands with Queen Elizabeth II at the monarch’s summer residence in Scotland—little knowing that it would be one of the last official acts of the Queen’s 70-year reign. Truss then returned to London to assume her duties as the nation’s 78th prime minister since the position was first recognized in 1721.

In stark contrast to the U.S. model, there’s no interregnum between the vote (for the prime minister) and the assumption of office. Even as Truss was making her way back to London on Sept. 6, the outgoing prime minister, Boris Johnson, was collecting his wife and young family to be driven away from 10 Downing Street—his official home since the fall of his predecessor, Theresa May, in July 2019—to the comparative obscurity of a four-bedroom farm in the west England countryside.

In the days and weeks leading up to Sept. 5, Britain heard plenty of demands that the choice of its new prime minister be one to reflect the more “inclusive” society we apparently all now inhabit. The word “inclusivity” implies an idea with which few would argue; no sane person, after all, stands on a platform appealing for anything to be more exclusive. But readers may note the strange paradox that Britain’s Conservative Party leadership race came down to a choice between a strong-willed professional woman, who at one time actually held a job outside of politics, and the son of stoutly middle-class parents of Indian descent, who migrated to the U.K. from East Africa. Meanwhile the aggressively woke Labour opposition party remains in thrall to the superbly regal figure of Oxford-educated Sir Keir Starmer.

Truss’s first three cabinet appointments since taking office were those of Suella Braverman, a woman of Indian origin, as home secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, a black man of Ghanian descent, as chancellor of the exchequer, and James Cleverly, whose mother is from Sierra Leone, as foreign secretary—meaning that for the first time ever, there are no white males among Britain’s four great offices of state.

In general, however, the fact that Truss is female (making her the United Kingdom’s third such leader in the past 32 years) was seized upon less than the matter of what she might have to say on a whole range of pressing issues, such as the nation’s skyrocketing energy bills, its recurrent wave of public-sector strikes, and the continuing fallout of Britain’s protracted and rancorous divorce from the European Union.

Of course, the Conservative Party has spent recent years adapting to the new “social justice” mantras that have swept Britain even faster than elsewhere in Europe and the United States. The party has almost managed to rebrand itself from the provincial “little England” tendencies, for which Sir Keir has chided them, to an unashamed internationalism, seemingly having lost a continent but yet now proud to be at the heart of a “vibrant, cooperative community of peoples” with a “special duty of care” to the nation’s own most vulnerable citizens, as Liz Truss put it in the giddy aftermath of her election.

What might that mean in practice? Britain’s Conservative Party activists may no longer spend their days quaffing port and oppressing the proletariat, but does their party, as represented by Truss, have a defining set of principles, as opposed to a talent for the crisis management that seems to run as a through line to the whole modern history of British politics?

The new prime minister herself, it’s widely agreed, is something of a philosophical shape-shifter. She was born into a stridently left-wing family—hardly her fault, admittedly—and her father declined to support her when she first stood for Parliament as a Conservative. As a teenager, Truss spent a year in Canada in Vancouver and clearly views the experience as a formative one; this last July, she tweeted a picture of her class at a local secondary school with the following caption: “30 years ago I spent a year in Canada that changed my outlook on life … #pioneercountry #optimism #maplespirit.” At one time in her early political career, she supported the legalization of cannabis and the abolition of the royal family. She believes in climate change, up to a point, but has said she plans to freeze Britain’s “green energy” tax in order to “enable businesses and industry to thrive” while examining the best way of achieving “net-zero” greenhouse emissions.

As for the defining question of Britain’s place, if any, in Europe, Truss campaigned hard against Brexit in 2016, warning, perhaps presciently, “just how difficult it would become to do business” if Britain were outside the Union, having to “fill in 50 boxes on a form every time we wanted to export something.” She now says she was “flat wrong” about Brexit and that she foresees no insurmountable problems for British businesses or for regular travelers as a result—something that might come as a surprise to those Brits who have to spend four hours waiting to board the cross-Channel ferry or the Eurostar train to France, inconveniences caused in part by post-Brexit border checks.

Set against all this, Truss’s supporters see her as a political pragmatist with no time for the sort of decadent lunacy that characterizes so much of our modern public discourse. “I’m a plain-speaking Yorkshire woman, and I know that a woman is a woman,” she announced on the campaign trail. A few days later, she published a plan to deal with a “woke civil service culture” that she insisted was more interested in debating the correct use of pronouns than in addressing the needs of the British public. Truss has had herself photographed riding a tank and sitting in an RAF jet, rarely loses an opportunity to pose with the Union Jack, and has said “the jury is still out” on the French president Emmanuel Macron, an uncontroversial view to many Britons but explosively provocative to the BBC and other would-be opinion formers.

Throw in the pledge to cut taxes and a penchant for boosterish rhetoric about the somehow familiar-sounding need to “make Britain great again” (“I see myself as the disruptor-in-chief,” Truss recently exclaimed in a speech at the London School of Economics), and one can perhaps begin to see Truss’s similarity to certain former heads of government, one female, and one male, with intense ambitions and outsized personalities—and whose surnames also happen to begin with “T.”

The pioneer spirit and optimism of which Truss speaks are likely to be severely tested by events in the days ahead. Much of the talk in Britain lately has been about the cost-of-living crisis that many expect will get significantly worse as winter comes. The former Conservative minister Owen Paterson told me that experts are increasingly concerned not only that many ordinary householders may not be able to afford to heat their homes this winter, but that a cold snap could result in blackouts throughout the UK.

“We should pray for a mild winter,” another senior Conservative source told me, failing which “we could be back to sitting in cold rooms reading flimsily-printed newspapers by candlelight.” A leaked report published in various media outlets revealed that several provincial British councils are busy preparing their art galleries, museums, and public libraries as communal “warm banks” in the event people are unable to light or heat their homes during the winter months.

The looming winter is a prospect not helped by the restive mood of a number of Britain’s key public-service industries: the nation’s train drivers, postal workers, and nurses all either set to strike or threatening to do so. The lead story of the UK’s Sunday Times on the day before Truss assumed power read as follows: “Police forces are braced for a rise in crime, a breakdown in public order and even corruption in their ranks this winter as they draw up emergency proposals to deal with the cost of living crisis.” Britain’s police are said to be increasingly concerned that “economic turmoil and instability” has “potential to drive increases in particular crime types”—among them, “acquisitive” offenses such as shoplifting, burglary, and car theft, as well as online fraud and blackmail.

It might be said that no one does decline management quite as well as the long-suffering Brits, who have seen their country reel from one economic crisis to another at regular intervals since 1945. But even so, the current state of affairs is something special. After all the drama of the Johnson years, many people I spoke to said that what they now wanted most was an administration that would operate with decency, restore trust, and get things done efficiently.

In that spirit, one wishes the new prime minister well, of course, even if one is reminded of another ideologically flexible politician who was sold to the voters as someone who would bind up the nation’s wounds after the exhausting years of his narcissistic, supremely divisive, wild-haired predecessor in office. We must just hope that Liz Truss rises to the occasion rather better than Joe Biden appears to have done.

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