Liz Truss spent the past eight weeks trying to convince Britain’s Conservative Party’s 172,000 members—who are much older, whiter, wealthier, and more male than the rest of the country—that she is the best person to succeed Boris Johnson as party leader and therefore Prime Minister. Now that she has, and now that Queen Elizabeth II has formally appointed her the country’s 56th Prime Minister, she must get on with the task of proving to everyone else that she’s right for the job.
But unlike most incoming prime ministers, Truss won’t be indulged with a honeymoon period. Instead, she faces a first day beset with challenges that have been stewing over a long, anxious summer: a dire cost-of-living crisis that could see most Britons facing energy poverty, record-breaking inflation, a buckling healthcare system, widespread labor unrest, and an economy some say is already in recession. And that’s before she even gets time to think about other issues such as the protracted war in Ukraine, trade tensions in Northern Ireland, a resurgent Scottish independence movement, and the small matter of bringing her ruling Conservative Party back together after a divisive leadership campaign.
What could go wrong?
The answer for Truss is many things, all at once. How Truss chooses to tackle the litany of crises on her desk, and whether she succeeds in stemming economists’ worst fears, will define her premiership. (Barring a snap poll, the next general election is due no later than January 2025.) For her party—whose past 12 years in Downing Street has involved implementing Brexit, governing through a pandemic that cost the lives of more than 200,000 Britons, and a high turnover of four leaders in six years—it will determine whether their next couple of years in power will be their last for some time.
There aren’t very many reasons for optimism. The scale of the challenges facing Truss “is one of the most difficult any Prime Minister has had in my lifetime,” Gavin Barwell, a former Conservative minister who served as chief of staff to the erstwhile Prime Minister Theresa May, tells TIME. While his former boss had the gargantuan challenge of trying to deliver on the result of the Brexit referendum, which ultimately cost her the premiership, “the rest of the policy environment was relatively benign.” For Truss, there is no single challenge to focus on nor is there one signature policy to get done. The lack of clear direction or detailed policy proposals was evident in her short victory speech, in which she pledged “we will deliver” six times, with little mention of what would be delivered or when.
If there’s one challenge that will require Truss’s immediate attention, it’s the rising cost of energy spurred in large part by the ongoing war in Ukraine. Brits have been warned that average household annual energy bills will increase by 80% next month, with further increases to come in 2023. Businesses, which are not subject to the same energy price caps as ordinary households, will see a steeper increase—and some face the risk of closure. The situation has become so dire that Britons have started circulating cost-saving tips to get people through the winter, ranging from the seemingly sensible (using cost-efficient appliances) to the absurd (“showering elsewhere five days a week”). One British television show even resorted to hosting a “Spin to Win” game, in which callers could play for the prize of getting their energy bills covered for four months. There is also talk of turning some public spaces into “warm banks” for those who can’t afford the rising costs.
As a candidate, Truss offered solutions to the energy crisis in the form of sweeping tax cuts, including reversing the rise in mandatory contributions to National Insurance (NI), a form of social security. But experts have warned that tax cuts and the NI decision won’t be enough and, if anything, stands to benefit higher earners at the expense of poorer Britons. Though Truss initially ruled out direct support to the most vulnerable, she is already facing pressure from some of her parliamentary colleagues, whose redistributive economic pledges were seen as key to the Conservatives’ resounding election victory in 2019. “We have and will continue to have that economic strength to give people the cash they need to get through this energy crisis,” Johnson said in his farewell address outside Downing Street on Tuesday, “and I know that Liz Truss and this compassionate Conservative government will do everything we can to get people through this.”
The added challenge for Truss is that every decision she makes now will have knock-on effects on the other crises she faces. Her NI decision, for example, means no longer having the funds intended to cover the post-pandemic backlogs plaguing the country’s prized National Health Service, which has seen average hospital wait times climb above 12 hours at the same time that millions of people wait months for non-emergency medical treatments. And if tax cuts aren’t enough to bring down the cost of living, Britain could see even further industrial action as people across sectors such rail and postal services, trash collection, and shipping go on strike for better pay. Truss needs to get her response to the cost-of-living crisis right, says Bronwen Maddox, the director of the Chatham House think tank in London, “because at the moment every road in politics starts there and ends there.”
If Truss’s predicament sounds impossible, that’s because it is. This combination of crises would likely crush any Prime Minister—let alone one taking office against the wishes of the majority of her parliamentary colleagues, and with only the expressed support of less than 1% of the electorate, most of whom preferred her predecessor anyway. As the former British diplomat Peter Ricketts explains it, Truss has basically been thrown a “hospital pass,” a rugby term that denotes when a teammate has been thrown the ball in a manner that exposes them to a clobbering from the opposing side. “I think that she is being landed in the leadership at a time when the problems are just piling up,” says Ricketts, “and she’s got to face the electorate pretty soon.”
If the Conservative leadership race was the hospital pass, then the next general election is the clobbering to come. Recent polls give the opposition Labor Party its strongest lead in nearly a decade, even though party leader Keir Starmer maintains a negative net likability rating. Should the Conservatives recover their position, Truss will still have to contend with defending the party’s long track record of decisions. After more than a decade of Conservative Party rule, there won’t be anyone else to blame.
“The Conservative Party has been in government a long time,” says Barwell. “The longer you’re in office, the more ‘time to change’ becomes a tempting pitch.”
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