After what felt like the longest leadership contest of all time, the United Kingdom finally has a new prime minister.
There was little drama when the result was announced on 5 September. Some have been predicting since the beginning of the year that Liz Truss would soon rise to the top job, and the polls in the weeks before her victory were unequivocal. Truss had a substantial lead against Rishi Sunak ever since the race was reduced to two candidates and the decision passed from Conservative Party MPs to Conservative Party members.
So far, so predictable, but what can we expect from the new prime minister?
Who IS Liz Truss?
Despite being a minister for 10 years, Truss remains little known outside political circles. During the leadership campaign, she avoided media scrutiny where she could, notably pulling out of a one-to-one BBC interview with veteran political journalist Nick Robinson, and reports on her personality can appear contradictory.
Her acceptance speech, made in front of Conservative MPs, provided further evidence that she is an uncomfortable public speaker. However, she is also known to be personable and persuasive in private settings where she thrives as a natural conversationalist.
Her commitment to Instagram has led some to argue that she lacks substance, although an alternative view would be that she has expertly used the platform to cultivate her image and pave her way to Number 10.
Dominic Cummings described Truss as “mad as a box of snakes”, while Rishi Sunak’s allies, unsurprisingly, claim that she is not up to the job. Yet it is not uncommon for civil servants to describe her as hard working and dedicated, with a strong attention to detail. These traits alone would mark her apart from her predecessor.
What of her politics?
As for her politics, it is now well known that she was once a Liberal Democrat before she became a Conservative. She was also an avid Remainer before she became the darling of the Brexiters.
She is, according to some, instinctively socially liberal, but is also willing to lean into the culture war when it suits her. And while she deliberately dresses like Margaret Thatcher, her economics appear to have trickled down from Reagan’s White House, with an almost sole focus on tax cuts.
Taking all this into account, it is hard to predict exactly what a Truss premiership will be like. She will be less bombastic than Johnson (who isn’t?) and almost certainly less effective at the dispatch box, but she will be more focused and diligent.
She lacks the support Johnson had amongst Conservative MPs and members when he became PM – he came first amongst MPs and won 66.4% of the member vote, Truss came second and won 57.4% of the vote – but she may prove to be less divisive.
Those who back her believe that she is a pragmatist, and will show strength through flexibility. Her opponents believe she lacks principles, meaning she will struggle to steer a steady path and instead be buffeted by her divided and rebellious MPs.
One thing is certain though, Truss is taking office at an extraordinarily challenging time.
Energy prices are soaring, driving inflation and a cost of living crisis that few, if any, Britons will avoid. The NHS is on its knees, and praying for a quiet winter, free of the burdens of large scale flu outbreaks, or worse, a resurgence of COVID-19. Industrial action and strikes are likely to continue throughout the winter as economic conditions worsen. Then there is the small matter of the border, the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland and the UK’s relationship with the EU – a relationship that is in urgent need of repair.
Truss has only eighteen months in office before the UK’s next general election and it is events, and her response to them, that will define her premiership. What is called for is genuine leadership and the ability to rise above the squabbles of modern politics, set out a clear vision, and channel disparate interests and peoples of the UK towards a shared goal.
If, as we get to know her, Truss reveals herself to be capable of this, she can hope to extend her time in office despite currently lagging behind Labour in the polls. However, if Truss chooses to speak in slogans, appeal to emotions and divide rather than unite, the UK’s prospects will continue to sink, as will her standing amongst voters.