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LONDON — At around midday Tuesday, Liz Truss will arrive by helicopter in the grand surrounds of Balmoral Castle, Queen Elizabeth’s sprawling 19th-century mansion in the Scottish highlands.
Her 96-year-old host will have a simple request for her guest — to form the next government of the United Kingdom.
Truss will be the 15th politician of whom Queen Elizabeth has made such a request, at an audience known as “kissing hands” — although hands, in fact, are no longer kissed. Instead, tradition dictates Truss will curtsy, and — afterwards — briefly discuss the work that lies ahead. No aides or officials will be present.
Tuesday’s appointment will be the Queen’s first at her Aberdeenshire residence, where she traditionally spends the late summer and early fall holidaying with her family. Recurring mobility issues have prevented the elderly monarch’s return to her London home, Buckingham Palace, which is a short drive from 10 Downing Street and would usually form the backdrop as she performs her constitutional role of accepting the resignation of a defenestrated prime minister — as she will have done with Boris Johnson earlier that day — and inviting their victorious successor to form a government.
For Truss, it will be a moment to savor, the culmination of 12 long years working her way up the greasy pole of Westminster politics, followed by a sprint to the finish in a brutal summer-long Tory leadership contest.
But the victorious leader won’t have long to reflect on her journey at the Queen’s 50,000-acre estate on the banks of the River Dee.
Instead she will quickly fly south again to meet a prime ministerial convoy, which will take her directly to Downing Street. Here, the rhetoric of her summer-long campaign will collide with the harsh reality that awaits. Truss will be in charge, and there will be much to do.
After making an address to the nation outside 10 Downing Street at around 4 p.m., Truss will be greeted by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, Whitehall’s most senior civil servant, and receive the traditional round of applause from Downing Street staff as she arrives at her new office and home. She will then be led into the Cabinet room, likely with her husband Hugh O’Leary in tow.
“For that person coming through the door in No. 10, it’s the highlight of their career, and that may be the biggest moment of their lives,” Gus O’Donnell, a former Cabinet secretary, told the BBC on Monday. He recalled how David Cameron, who became PM in 2010, had simply put his head in his hands in the Cabinet room as the reality of the moment dawned upon him.
The first question from officials will be stark. The new PM must make clear whether they intend to “blow up the rest of the world when we’ve been blown up,” O’Donnell said, in reference to the U.K.’s nuclear deterrent. Truss will then be presented with a series of “quite 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 the president of the United States, Joe Biden, and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will also be on the cards.
“It’s a bit of a chaotic day,” O’Donnell smiled.
The most pressing task for the new prime minister will be calming the markets.
Truss takes over at a time of high inflation, rising interest rates, soaring energy prices already forcing businesses to close their doors, and an imminent recession.
How Truss and her new chancellor react will be crucial. Kwasi Kwarteng, an old friend of Truss and fellow free market traveler, has been working on economic policy in her transition team, and is widely expected to take charge at the Treasury once Truss is in a position to unveil her top team.
In a piece for the Financial Times on Monday Kwarteng promised “bold” action, rolling the pitch for what he called “fiscal loosening, to help people through the winter” — shorthand for a Treasury borrowing spree.
He also doubled down on Truss’ promise of “immediate action” to cut taxes, and her plan to unshackle business from “unsuitable regulations.”
But combining what is expected to be a multi-billion pound package of energy support, likely to be announced Thursday, with a package of massive tax cuts 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.
Sterling finished last week near its lowest level against the dollar in almost three decades, and forecasters predict it could yet fall further. Truss knows she must avoid a ‘Black Wednesday‘-style rout if she is to survive for long.
Cabinet of all the talents?
After putting her new chancellor in place, Truss will have the grisly task of sacking a succession of unwanted ministers, before filling the vacancies with her chosen top team. It is a job fraught with difficulties at the best of times, but will be particularly difficult after such a divisive leadership contest.
Some of those expected to depart have already saved her the trouble, however. Johnson loyalists Priti Patel and Nigel Adams, respectively the home secretary and a senior Cabinet Office minister, quit their posts Monday after Truss’ victory was announced.
But Truss, even with the large House of Commons majority she inherits from Johnson, will have to heal some of the wounds within the Tory Party if she is to get her program of government through.
A far greater number of Conservative MPs had initially backed her leadership rival, Rishi Sunak, although she did start to build more support when it became clear she was the Tory membership’s favored choice.
“Whatever she decides on the energy package, it will involve some legislation at some point. She’s got to get that through the House,” O’Donnell said. “She’s got to bring the party together. The choice of her Cabinet will be absolutely crucial.”
The reaction of the Tory backbenches will be very publicly on display at her first session of prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after she takes office.
Truss will have little time to prepare for the noon showdown with Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, a half-hour parliamentary fixture at which backbench MPs can ask her anything in the febrile atmosphere of the Commons chamber.
The mother of all in-trays
Truss is still finalizing her response to what will surely be the biggest question of the day, however — the support which should be offered to households and businesses facing crippling energy bill hikes next month.
The big announcement is penciled in for Thursday, and the public’s response will be the first big test of her government. Get it right, and her poll ratings could soar, rapidly calming Tory jitters about the competence of their new leader. Get it wrong, and already-disgruntled MPs will start to cause trouble.
Truss also knows she must get inflation under control if there is any chance of avoiding recession. The rising cost of living has triggered waves of industrial action — paralyzing rail and mail services, as well as the criminal courts.
Meanwhile the bloody war on mainland Europe shows no sign of abating, and Truss’ support for Ukraine’s resistance cannot be questioned. A symbolic trip to Kyiv will be near the top of her in-tray.
And she must also decide how to tackle the Brexit question, with relations with the European Union on ice over her controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill currently making its way through Parliament. A confrontation with the House of Lords, which is gearing up for a long battle with Truss over the legislation, is almost certain.
There are signs that Truss may attempt to make progress on negotiations with Brussels, however, with an early trip to Ireland reportedly on her agenda.
Aides have suggested she may alternatively trigger Article 16 of the Protocol, however — a provision that allows an aggrieved side to suspend a particular part of the agreement if it leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties.” The EU would not be impressed.
“The EU and the U.K. are partners,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said pointedly on Monday. She told Truss she looked forward to “a constructive relationship, in full respect of our agreements.”
In her victory speech Truss promised to “govern as a Conservative,” and to “deliver for our country.” Given the ferocious nature of the headwinds that lie ahead, she will have a tough job just to stay on course.