Even as Liz Truss enters 10 Downing Street as the United Kingdom (UK)’s fourth prime minister (PM) in the last six years, she will be acutely aware that the London bookies are offering favourable odds on a shorter premiership for her than Theresa May’s 1,106 days. She would also not be unaware of polls that show that half of the country’s population is “disappointed” that she is the PM, including a third who are “deeply disappointed”. These facts will be a dampener on the euphoria of her victory over Rishi Sunak after a bruising and vituperative seven-week-long campaign that left a virtually leaderless country in the doldrums and raised questions about the future of the Conservative Party (the Tories).
The reasons behind the pessimism of the bookies are many. First, Truss is not the first choice of the Tory Members of Parliament (MPs): Only 50 of 347 MPs voted for her in the first round; she managed to push this figure to 113 by round five, but still trailed Sunak. Nor is she the people’s choice because there has been no election. She walks into 10 Downing Street on the strength of a “selection” — a choice made in her favour over Sunak by the Tory party membership that is only 0.3% of the country’s population; it is also predominantly old, white, male, and Right of centre. Her margin of victory — 57.4% against Sunak’s 42.6% — in this selection is unimpressive and the lowest since the party members were given a say in 1998. She does not have a fresh mandate. Instead, she inherits the mandate given to Boris Johnson, now soiled by scandal and mendacity.
Second, the challenges she faces are daunting and critical. The country is in the grip of a serious cost of living crisis, with inflation crossing 10%. Britons are paying 18% more for food than they were a year ago; energy bills are going through the roof. If nothing is done, energy costs for households in October would have trebled in the last 18 months; the Bank of England has forecast a protracted recession by the end of the year. Truss’s waiting in-tray at 10 Downing also contains the collapsing National Health Service; industrial unrest in railways, health, and other sectors; post-Brexit complications with the European Union (EU), particularly regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol; the challenge of large numbers of migrants coming across the Channel, and the resurgent problem of Scottish independence.
Third, she has the uphill task of uniting a deeply divided Conservative Party and winning over the MPs who did not want her there in the first place. Many of them — including the erstwhile home secretary Priti Patel and culture secretary Nadine Dorries — have already resigned and moved to the back benches, ready to heckle and hobble the new PM. At this stage, it appears she will gather around her a Cabinet of loyalists. Sunak — for whom the premiership finally became a bridge too far — is not likely to be offered a berth: The burden of the “betrayal” of Johnson and a damaged personal reputation are heavy baggage.
Truss herself is not free from baggage. She is being described as a shapeshifting politician, a polite way of describing an opportunist. She was a Liberal Democrat activist in her youth and marched against Margaret Thatcher; now as a Conservative Party premier, she would like to model herself on Thatcher. She argued in favour of the abolition of the monarchy, but has affirmed her support since. From a well-known Remainer (a person who is in favour of the UK “remaining” in the EU), she has turned into a confirmed Brexiteer.
Given the travails caused by skyrocketing prices, the new PM knows that the honeymoon, if any, is likely to be brief. She has done well to announce her intentions early — tax cuts and control on energy prices. Energy bills are likely to be frozen, though it is still unclear how that measure, which will require a massive intervention, will be funded. Besides, that measure will be touted as a victory by the Opposition parties.
When she gets the time, Truss will have to look beyond the borders. While as foreign secretary she developed a reputation of being a supporter of Ukraine and tough on Russia and Vladimir Putin, she suffers from a serious trust deficit with the EU and is an unlikely partner for successfully tackling post-Brexit trading arrangements. Similarly, she has recently annoyed France, one of the UK’s closest trade partners, by refusing to state whether President Emmanuel Macron is a friend or a foe.
In her victory speech, Truss promised to deliver the 2024 election to the Conservatives. For that to happen, she has to not only stay in the job, but make a serious dent in the towering challenges before her. The country’s third woman PM — and this Queen’s 15th — may as well, as the British are fond of saying, “get on with it”. And as she does, she should keep an eye out for a man named Boris Johnson in the rear-view mirror. Meanwhile, the world will keep an eye on the odds being offered by the London bookies.
Navtej Sarna is a former high commissioner to the UK and ambassador to the US. He is also the author, most recently, of the historical novel Crimson Spring
The views expressed are personal