Liz Truss gets queen’s nod, becomes U.K. prime minister, in day of pageantry

Jane Barlow/Pool via REUTERS
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth waits in the Drawing Room before receiving Liz Truss for an audience, where she invited the newly elected leader of the Conservative party to become Prime Minister and form a new government, at Balmoral Castle, Scotland, Britain September 6, 2022.

LONDON – With all the customary pageantry, Britain on Tuesday traded a prime minister known for colorful metaphors and a loose relationship with the truth for one who offered unadorned bullet points for dealing with the country’s looming economic crisis.

Jane Barlow/Pool via REUTERS
Queen Elizabeth welcomes Liz Truss during an audience where she invited the newly elected leader of the Conservative party to become Prime Minister and form a new government, at Balmoral Castle, Scotland, Britain September 6, 2022.

The outgoing Boris Johnson compared himself to rocket booster that has “fulfilled its function” and to ancient Roman statesman/dictator Cincinnatus, who returned to his farm after saving the republic from invasion.

New leader Liz Truss promised to help Britain “ride the storm” of inflation, recession and soaring energy prices. She vowed to get the country working and growing again with tax cuts and deregulation. She used the word “we” a lot.

But neither Truss nor Johnson mentioned that their Conservative Party has been in power for 12 years and so has contributed to the country’s scary economic forecast. Johnson didn’t note that it was his party’s lawmakers who drove him from office after a string of scandals and lies. And Truss didn’t acknowledge that she has been installed by the lawmakers and members of their party, rather than securing a mandate from broader Britain. She was selected by 0.3 percent of the population.

The day was a pas de deux – by tradition.

Usually outgoing and incoming prime ministers nearly pass each other on the five-minute drive from Downing Street to Buckingham Palace, both in London. But because Queen Elizabeth II is 96 years old and has limited mobility, she asked the pair to travel to her, at her Balmoral royal estate and summer holiday home in Scotland.

Johnson and Truss flew in separate Royal Air Force passenger jets to arrive for their separate audiences with the monarch. Cutting carbon emissions, it appeared, was not the top concern of the day. Officials asserted that dual flights were necessary for security.

Johnson had been serving as a caretaker prime minister since July, when an avalanche of resignations from his government forced him to announce he would step down. But his meeting with the queen made it official. He bowed and tendered his resignation.

Andrew Milligan/Pool via REUTERS
Outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is greeted by the Queen Elizabeth’s Equerry Lieutenant Colonel Tom White and her private Secretary Edward Young as he arrives for an audience to formally resign as prime minister, at Balmoral castle, in Scotland, Britain September 6, 2022.

Then it was Truss’s turn to meet the monarch and ask for permission to form a new government. In photos allowed by the palace, she appeared to perform a shallow curtsy.

The transition offered a glimpse of the queen, which has become something of a rarity since health issues forced her to scale back her workload. Wearing a gray cardigan, a Scotland-appropriate plaid skirt and her signature pearls, she smiled at Truss and extended her hand toward the incoming prime minister.

In her other hand, the queen held a cane, an aid she has been photographed using regularly in recent months.

She looked tiny – and a little frail – but chipper.

Truss is the queen’s 15th prime minister. The first was Winston Churchill, born in 1874. Truss was born more than 100 years later – in 1975.

She becomes the third female British prime minister, after Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher – all Conservatives, by the way. And Britain can now claim membership in the small club of countries that have elected or appointed at least three female heads of state or government.

Truss also made history Tuesday by appointing three people of color to what are called the “great offices” of state: James Cleverly as foreign secretary, Suella Braverman as home secretary and Kwasi Kwarteng as chancellor of the exchequer or finance chief. For the first time, there won’t be a White man holding one of Britain’s four top seats of political power.

Truss herself has held senior posts under three prime ministers, including her most recent stint as foreign secretary. Yet many Britons confess they don’t really know Truss, not the way they knew Johnson – former London mayor, newspaper columnist, Brexit cheerleader, serial prevaricator.

It’s fair to say Truss is a shape-shifter.

She is a self-described “plain-speaking Yorkshire woman” (who went to Oxford, like many British leaders).

Her political journey began on the left, as a Liberal Democrat. Down with the monarchy! she cried in her college days. But today she is solidly Conservative and asserts that the royal family is “essential” to Britain’s success.

Truss also voted for Britain to remain in the European Union before becoming a hardcore Brexiteer.

She has made E.U. officials nervous with threats to override the provision of the Brexit deal that deals with Northern Ireland. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen offered Truss a pointed congratulations this week: “I look forward to a constructive relationship, in full respect of our agreements.”

The United States – a key backer of the Good Friday peace agreement – is also wary about Truss’s moves in Northern Ireland.

In his congratulations message, President Biden instead emphasized the cooperation between the United States and Britain in providing “continued support for Ukraine as it defends itself against Russian aggression.”

Johnson listed Britain’s early support of Ukraine as one his proudest achievements. Truss, who has already helped impose sanctions on Russian oligarchs, has promised to be forceful in her dealings with Moscow. Her first conversation as prime minister with a foreign leader was with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday was withering in his criticism of the new British leader, decrying her “knowingly negative position on Russia.”

Lavrov said, “She defends Britain’s interests without any desire to compromise, which is unlikely to strengthen London’s position on the international stage.”

Although Truss has inherited a huge range of challenges, Brits have a very clear idea about what they think should rise to the top of her inbox: the cost-of-living crisis.

People are alarmed by rising energy bills. The average annual household fuel bill is set to increase from about $2,300 to $4,100 next month – a jump of nearly 80 percent. And analysts say the average could top $6,900 next year. That’s if the government doesn’t intervene.

At the same time, inflation is at 10 percent, a 40-year high, and the Bank of England is forecasting a protracted recession.

In her first speech as prime minister Tuesday afternoon, Truss promised “bold” action. “I will deal hands-on with the energy crisis caused by Putin’s war,” she said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin and laying blame squarely on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

She was unclear on the specifics of how the state will help, or how the government will fund any interventions. The Financial Times reported that Truss’s team is finalizing a package that could cost more than $115 billion to address the crisis.

Truss vowed to help “transform Britain into an aspiration nation, with high paying jobs, safe streets and where everyone everywhere has the opportunities they deserve.”

The new leader said she wanted to focus on “getting Britain working again,” though unemployment is near historic lows, at 3.8 percent, and businesses are struggling to find workers after Brexit.

Johnson’s Downing Street remarks earlier in the day underscored the stylistic differences between the two leaders.

His evocation of Cincinnatus, especially, got people talking.

Clearly, Johnson, an amateur classicist, was virtue-signaling – big time.

But was the primary message about political restraint? Or the duty to serve when called upon?

The 5th-century B.C. Roman statesman is said to have been pressed into service to defend Rome from invasion, accepting extraordinary powers but then giving them all up after the battle was over. According to some accounts, he later agreed to return to Rome and serve as dictator for a second time.

An analyst for the BBC said the subtext of Johnson’s speech was “Why on Earth did you get rid of me?” Many believe Johnson will attempt a comeback.

Mary Beard, an Oxford classicist, tweeted: “If you are curious about Boris Johnson’s reference to Cincinnatus in his goodbye speech – he was a 5th century BC Roman politician who saved the state from an invasion, then – job done – returned to his farm (‘to his plough’).”

She added, “He was also an enemy of the people.”