A week like no other for Liz Truss – POLITICO

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LONDON — Everyone knows your first week in a new job can be tough. So spare a thought for Liz Truss, the U.K. prime minister, who was invited earlier this week to form a government by Queen Elizabeth II.

Already ringed red in Truss’ diary was Thursday, September 8, two days into her premiership, and likely the most important day of her career. Her most senior aides knew it was the day that would set the tone for the rest of her premiership.

And so it proved — but not for the reasons expected.

The new PM had just sat down in the Commons on Thursday after unveiling her long-awaited plan to deal with Britain’s soaring energy bills, undoubtedly the biggest political issue of the year. Her announcement, an estimated £100 billion package to freeze bills at their current level, would be one of the biggest-ever fiscal interventions by a U.K. government in peacetime. She knew her premiership would be judged on how it landed with the public.

But as she sat down, the world changed — as she was passed a note with an update on the queen’s health.

Queen Elizabeth had been placed by her doctors under medical supervision. Her closest family, including her son Charles, were already on their way to Balmoral. Four hours later, at 4.30 p.m., Truss was informed of the queen’s death by Simon Case, her most senior civil servant.

The death of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch marked a profound moment of change for the country — and an enormous challenge for a prime minister, two days into the job.

“Moments of discontinuity — and the death of Britain’s longest lasting monarch is a key example of this — call forth a need for statesmanship from other crucial political players,” said Jeremy Black, Conservative Party historian and author of “Britain Since 1945.”

“The requirement for political skill is virtually unprecedented. For historians, this will be a make-or-break moment in the reputation of Prime Minister Truss. If she survives this crisis and shows the necessary leadership, she will emerge from it with the praise of the future.”

Truss entered Downing Street on Tuesday already under enormous time pressure. Inflation in the U.K. was hovering above 10 percent, and energy bills were set to rise by 80 percent in less than four weeks’ time. Millions of households would be unable to pay.

In her first speech on the No. 10 steps, she promised that “we will deliver, we will deliver, we will deliver.”

Queen Elizabeth greets newly elected leader of the Conservative party Liz Truss on September 6 | Pool photo by Jane Barlow/Getty Images

She intended to hit the ground running. During her first month in office she was due to thrash out her plan on energy bills, meet Joe Biden and other world leaders at the U.N. general assembly in New York, and then slash taxes at major a fiscal event in mid-September.

But the queen’s death and the ensuing 10-day period of national mourning have put the brakes on her best-laid plans.

Parliament is not expected to sit after MPs have finished paying their tributes on Saturday, meaning new legislation cannot be passed in the coming days. A scrambling No. 10 insisted Friday that the energy price freeze could still go ahead on October 1 as planned, but through private contracts with energy suppliers rather than the expected emergency laws. Her trip to the U.N. is also now in doubt, with the queen’s funeral and the fiscal event already pencilled in that same week.

Instead, Truss has an entirely new challenge — to rise to the occasion, as a novice prime minister, at a moment of history. Where the tone of her premiership had been due to be set by her freezing energy bills and announcing tax cuts, it now rests on the manner of her response to the queen’s death.

The last PM who found themselves in an even remotely comparable situation was Tony Blair, who had been in power for just five months when Princess Diana died unexpectedly in a car crash in 1997.

Blair’s memorable reference to Diana as “the people’s princess” in his speech that day chimed with the nation, and indeed went down in history. His approval ratings surged, hitting 93 percent on the eve of Labour party conference that September. He won praise for his empathy at a time when the rest of the royal family was under heavy criticism for its muted response to Diana’s death.

The circumstances are very different now, but once again the task for the PM is to capture the country’s mood.

Peter Mandelson, one of the architects of Blair’s New Labour, said: “Any prime minister at these times knows she is speaking for the nation not for herself and has to be visible but not intrusive. This is difficult to get right but putting public empathy before politics is the key.”

“The reason why Tony Blair’s words about Diana went round the world is not just because of the simple phrase ‘people’s princess,’ but because on the spur of the moment he understood and captured the public mood about her.”

Observers say Truss now has an opportunity to define herself. She is still unknown to a large section of the British public. In an Ipsos poll this week, only half of the people surveyed said they knew a fair amount or a great deal about her.

Some argue that by getting the tone right and keeping a steady hand on the tiller, Truss can introduce herself to the nation in a deeply sympathetic way at a time when there is no appetite for party politics.

Black said: “I don’t think it would be regarded by anybody as cynical to say that for a prime minister, this represents an enormous opportunity and need; need on the part of the nation, opportunity on the part of the prime minister, to show a leadership that helps bring people together.”

Others argue that at this moment, politics, and Truss herself, will simply fade into the background as people mourn and celebrate the life of the queen.

“She was going to use these next few days to establish a persona,” said Stephen Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “When your party is polling 10 to 15 percent behind and you’re just taking over, you want to make a big impact.”

“She would have wanted to use this moment to imprint herself in a very partisan way, create dividing lines between herself and [Labour leader] Keir Starmer.

“Now, while a nation is mourning the departure of a long-term monarch, she can’t really do anything else but keep in the background. If she tried to insert herself into anything, that could rebound very badly.”

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