Press play to listen to this article
LONDON — Around noon Tuesday, Liz Truss will arrive in the awe-inspiring surroundings of Balmoral Castle, Queen Elizabeth’s sprawling 19th-century mansion in the Scottish Highlands.
Its 96-year-old host will have one simple request for his guest: to form the next UK government.
Truss will be the 15th politician to whom Queen Elizabeth has made such a request, in a hearing known as a ‘hands kiss’ – although the hands, in fact, are no longer kissed. Instead, tradition dictates that Truss bows and then briefly discusses the work ahead. No helper or official will be present.
Tuesday’s date will be the Queen’s first at her Aberdeenshire residence, where she traditionally spends the late summer and early autumn on holiday with her family. Ongoing mobility issues have prevented the elderly monarch from returning to her London home, Buckingham Palace, which is a short drive from 10 Downing Street and would usually provide the backdrop as she carries out her constitutional role as a accepting the resignation of a defenestrated Prime Minister – as she will have done with Boris Johnson earlier today – and inviting their victorious successor to form a government.
For Truss, it will be a moment to savor, the culmination of 12 long years climbing the greasy pole of Westminster politics, followed by a sprint to the finish in a brutal Tory leadership race throughout throughout the summer.
But the victorious ruler won’t have long to reflect on her journey to the Queen’s 50,000-acre estate on the banks of the River Dee.
Instead, she will rush back south to meet a Prime Minister’s convoy, which will take her straight to Downing Street. Here, the rhetoric of his summer campaign will clash with the harsh reality that awaits him. Truss will be in charge, and there will be plenty to do.
After delivering a speech to the nation outside 10 Downing Street around 4 p.m., Truss will be greeted by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, Whitehall’s most senior civil servant, and receive the traditional applause from Downing Street staff at his arrived in her new office. and at home. She will then be led into the Cabinet Room, likely accompanied by her husband Hugh O’Leary.
“For that person to walk through the door of Number 10, it’s the high point of their career, and it’s possibly the greatest moment of their life,” said Gus O’Donnell, former Cabinet Secretary, at the BBC on Monday. He recalled how David Cameron, who became Prime Minister in 2010, simply put his head in his hands in the Cabinet Room as the reality of the moment dawned on him.
The first question from officials will be blunt. The new prime minister must clarify whether he intends to “blow up the rest of the world when we’ve blown up”, O’Donnell said, referring to the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Truss will then be presented with a series of ‘pretty scary’ security and intelligence briefings – although having served as Foreign Secretary for the past 12 months, little of what she hears should come as a surprise.
A call with United States President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will also be scheduled.
“It’s a bit of a bumpy day,” smiled O’Donnell.
The most urgent task for the new Prime Minister will be to calm the markets.
Truss takes over at a time of high inflation, rising interest rates, soaring energy prices already forcing businesses to close, and an impending recession.
The reaction of Truss and his new chancellor will be crucial. Kwasi Kwarteng, an old friend of Truss’s and fellow free market traveler, has worked on economic policy in his transition team and is expected to largely take charge of the Treasury once Truss is able to unveil his best team.
In an article for the Financial Times on Monday, Kwarteng pledged “bold” action, rolling the ground for what he called “fiscal easing, to help people get through the winter” – shorthand for a Treasury borrowing spree.
He also doubled down on Truss’ promise of “immediate action” to cut taxes and his plan to free businesses from “misfit regulations.”
But combining what should be a multi-billion pound package of energy support, due to be announced on Thursday, with a massive tax cut package later this month – not to mention the prospect of a damaging trade war with the European Union further down the line – will be quite a test of market confidence.
The pound ended last week near its lowest level against the dollar in nearly three decades, and forecasters predict it could fall further. Truss knows she must avoid a “Black Wednesday” style rout if she is to survive for long.
Cabinet of all talents?
After installing her new chancellor, Truss will have the macabre task of sacking a succession of unwanted ministers, before filling the vacancies with her chosen top team. It’s a tricky job at the best of times, but it will be especially difficult after such a divisive leadership race.
However, some of those expected to leave have already spared him trouble. Johnson loyalists Priti Patel and Nigel Adams, the Home Secretary and Cabinet Minister respectively, quit their posts on Monday after Truss’ victory was announced.
But Truss, even with the large majority in the House of Commons she inherits from Johnson, will have to heal some of the wounds within the Conservative party if she is to push through her governing agenda.
A much larger number of Tory MPs had initially backed her leadership rival Rishi Sunak, although she began to gain more support when it became clear that she was the preferred choice of Tory members.
“Whatever she decides on the energy package will involve legislation at some point. She needs to get this through the House,” O’Donnell said. “She has to throw the party. The choice of his cabinet will be absolutely crucial.
The reaction of Tory backbenchers will be on full public display during his first Prime Minister’s Questions session on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after he took office.
Truss will have little time to prepare for the midday showdown with Labor leader Keir Starmer, a half-hour parliamentary appointment in which backbench MPs can ask him anything in the feverish atmosphere of the House of Commons.
The mother of all input bins
Truss is still finalizing his answer to what is sure to be the biggest question of the day, however – the support that should be offered to households and businesses facing crippling energy bill hikes next month.
The big announcement is scheduled for Thursday, and the public’s response will be his government’s first big test. Get it right, and his polls could skyrocket, quickly calming Tory jitters about the skill of their new leader. If you get it wrong, already disgruntled MPs will start causing trouble.
Truss also knows she needs to get inflation under control if there is any chance of averting a recession. The rising cost of living has triggered waves of industrial action, crippling rail and postal services, as well as criminal courts.
Meanwhile, the bloody war against continental Europe shows no signs of abating, and Truss’ support for the Ukrainian resistance cannot be questioned. A symbolic trip to Kyiv will be near the top of his baccalaureate.
And she must also decide how to approach Brexit, with relations with the European Union frozen over her controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill currently before Parliament. A showdown with the House of Lords, which is preparing for a long battle with Truss over legislation, is all but certain.
There are signs that Truss could try to advance negotiations with Brussels, however, with a first trip to Ireland said to be on his agenda.
Aides have suggested it could also trigger Article 16 of the protocol, a provision which allows an aggrieved party to suspend a particular part of the agreement if it causes “serious economic, societal or environmental hardship”. The EU would not be impressed.
“The EU and the UK are partners,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Monday. She told Truss that she looked forward to “a constructive relationship, in full respect of our agreements.”
In his victory speech, Truss promised to “rule as a conservative” and “deliver for our country.” Given the fierce nature of the headwinds ahead of her, she will struggle to stay on course.