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Liz Truss is next prime minister of Britain after audience with queen

She has won over conservatives, but Liz Truss' standing with the British public is less clear and is set to be immediately tested by an unenviable influx of crises requiring urgent attention.

(CN) — Triumphing in a monthlong leadership contest with the former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss has been appointed Britain’s new prime minister.

Truss, who previously held the position of foreign secretary, received 57% of votes from the Conservative Party’s grassroots membership, compared with rival Sunak’s 42%. She replaces the outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was forced to resign last month after a series of scandals led to mass resignations from government.

Truss formally became prime minister on Tuesday after traveling with the outgoing Johnson to a Scottish castle, known as Balmoral, for an audience with the queen. The monarch has a constitutional duty to ask an incoming prime minister to form a government, but for the first time was unable to do so from Buckingham Palace in London due to health reasons.

Truss becomes the third female prime minister in British political history. She defeated her more high-profile competitor after spending years in Cabinet bolstering her Thatcherite credentials as a tax-cutting, low-spending fiscal conservative. Her ascent has also been aided by her careful maneuvering around the collapse of Boris Johnson’s premiership. Unlike Sunak, Truss did not resign from Johnson’s government and continued to be loyal to the former prime minister, who remains very popular among the Conservative Party’s grassroots.

Truss is far from the most likely of Conservative prime ministers. She is from a staunchly left-wing family and was once a high-profile member of the rival Liberal Democrat Party’s youth wing. Before transforming herself into a right-wing, pro-Brexit, establishment Conservative, Truss opposed the U.K. leaving the European Union and advocated in previous speeches for the abolition of the British monarchy. First elected to Parliament in 2010, Truss has held numerous junior government posts and been a member of Cabinet since 2017, before becoming foreign secretary last year.

As foreign secretary, following the Russian invasion earlier this year, she raised eyebrows by encouraging Brits to fight in Ukraine, in contradiction to the government’s official position. But she also scored some high-profile successes in the post, including securing the release of British citizen and political prisoner Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from an Iranian jail. Truss is also well known for her strong anti-China sentiment, which is now likely to become more prominent in Britain’s foreign policy.

During her time as foreign secretary she was widely known to be positioning herself for a leadership bid, organizing lavish dinner parties to court MPs, and engaging in extensive photo shoots during foreign visits. The approach helped her to become a favorite among party members, and ensured that she just managed to make it into the final two leadership candidates selected by parliamentarians — narrowly overtaking unlikely rival Penny Mordaunt at the final hurdle. Ever since making it onto the membership ballot, she had been widely expected to win the contest, with Sunak trailing significantly in membership-approval ratings.

Truss’ campaign for the top job has not, however, been without controversy. She has singularly focused on reducing taxation as the core of her campaign and economic agenda, with critics arguing this focus has been at the expense of a plan to deal with the rapidly rising cost of food and energy. She has also criticized the politically independent Bank of England for rising inflation, and dismissed giving Brits “handouts” as a means to manage the energy-price crisis, before her campaign later stated that direct payments might be needed.

Particularly controversial was a proposal to introduce regional pay boards to the U.K. Truss’ regional pay boards would have made decisions on public-sector pay based on local prices, meaning that workers such as teachers and nurses living in more economically deprived areas of Britain would be paid less. The policy was announced despite the fact that the Conservative Party was elected at the 2019 general election on the promise of "leveling up" the country through public investment to reduce regional inequality.

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After a considerable backlash, the policy was quickly dropped by Truss, whose campaign stated that “there will be no proposal taken forward on regional pay boards for civil servants or public sector workers,” and “current levels of public sector pay will absolutely be maintained.” Sunak’s campaign said the U-turn showed that Truss had “made a serious moral and political misjudgment on a policy affecting millions of people” and that “mistakes like this in government would cost the Conservative party the next general election.”

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II welcomes Liz Truss on Sept. 6, 2022, during an audience at Balmoral, Scotland, where she invited the newly elected leader of the Conservative party to become prime minister and form a new government. (Jane Barlow/Pool Photo via AP)

Truss has also made a series of controversial statements during the campaign. She surprised some for dismissing Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who is leading a push for Scottish independence, as an “attention seeker,” stating that “the best thing to do with Nicola Sturgeon is to ignore her.” The comments helped to deepen a rift between English and Scottish Conservatives. And she also drew criticism for refusing to answer whether French President Emmanuel Macron was “a friend or a foe,” answering instead that “the jury’s out."

Many of Truss’ more controversial statements have been aimed to appeal to the Conservative Party grassroots, which she has clearly proved adept at courting. What remains unclear, however, is how different the governing Truss will be to the campaigning Truss.

Many have compared her tendency for U-turns and sometimes undiplomatic language to that of Boris Johnson. Like her predecessor, Truss also has a reputation as being gaffe-prone and lacking in fixed political commitments. The concern among some Conservatives, therefore, is that she will also resemble Johnson in governing style and fail to restore the stability to Britain’s governance that was lost during Johnson’s scandal-ridden premiership.

Regardless of leadership style, however, the political and economic environment being inherited by Truss is utterly unenviable, and the immediate challenges facing her premiership are vast.

Top of the list is formulating a response to an energy price crisis that is set to impoverish British households and collapse British businesses. Household energy bills are set to increase by 80% on October 1 — a hike that is predicted to push more than a third of Brits into "fuel poverty." A further and larger price hike is expected in January. Meanwhile, for businesses, energy prices are not capped by the regulator, meaning many face price hikes of 400% or more. Truss has stated she will set out a plan to deal with energy prices on Thursday.

Waves of industrial action are also being planned for the winter by British trade unions. During the leadership campaign, Truss pledged to limit the ability of key workers to strike, teeing up a potentially disruptive confrontation with a newly energized union movement. Maintaining good industrial relations with labour therefore poses a serious challenge for the newcomer.

Liz Truss meets supporters as she arrives to attend a Conservative leadership election hustings at the NEC in Birmingham, England, on Aug. 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira, File)

The new prime minister also faces a crisis in the U.K.’s National Health Service. Hospitals are fast running out of beds and suffering from staff shortages, waiting times for treatment remain high, and most recently ambulance response times to emergencies have skyrocketed. Johnson’s government had introduced a tax hike aimed at funding the response to the crisis in health and social care, but Truss has pledged to reverse this increase, leaving the government’s response to the health care crisis unclear.

And Truss also faces a high-stakes situation in Northern Ireland, where governance has collapsed in the context of historic elections won by Irish nationalists seeking to breakaway from the U.K. Unionist hardliners have refused to participate in Northern Ireland’s delicate peacetime power sharing institutions unless post-Brexit trading arrangements are abandoned. As foreign secretary, Truss introduced legislation seeking to unilaterally overturn the Brexit treaty signed with the European Union in order to resolve the stalemate. But the EU has threatened retaliatory tariffs in response, which could spark a costly and ill-affordable trade war.

And these policy headaches are combined with a deeply uncomfortable political context. The parliamentary Conservative Party is restless and divided after a bruising year of scandals, and the party’s polling continues to deteriorate, with some polls putting the rival Labour Party more than 15 percentage points ahead. In addition, Truss’ personal approval ratings are already exceedingly poor, with YouGov releasing polling stating that only 12% of Brits think she will make a good prime minister. Her personal polling is already worse than that of Johnson, who was ousted in large part due to his own low approval ratings.

Most incoming prime ministers can expect a so-called honeymoon period in which the public are generally willing to give a fresh face the benefit of the doubt. But given the scale of the challenges facing the newest inhabitant of 10 Downing Street, it is more than likely that Truss’ honeymoon is already over.

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