In his last days as prime minister of Britain, Boris Johnson conducted a farewell tour of the country. Possibly he expected something like the accolades his beloved Roman generals were given—a small arch in his honor, say—or at least a few angry Gauls walking miserably behind his chariot. Instead he went to a field in southwest England and stared at a hole in the ground.
The hole will one day be filled by superfast internet cables, but it could equally serve as the grave of Johnson’s hopes to be remembered as something other than the prime minister who “got Brexit done.” After he oversaw Britain’s departure from the European Union, the coronavirus intervened, and his government’s domestic agenda stalled amid scandals over lockdown parties and wallpaper and corruption. His own ministers brought him down in July, at which point he announced he would stay on as a “caretaker” until the Conservative Party could choose his replacement. The country that Johnson has handed over to his successor has been stuck in limbo all summer, anxious and adrift.
His foreign secretary, Liz Truss, replaces him today, and has inherited not so much an in tray as a portal to a nightmare dimension. COVID-19 was a headline-dominating crisis. Truss must confront another one—the imminent spike in energy bills—but also a flotilla of other problems, including high inflation, widespread labor unrest, and long waits for medical treatment. Whatever the opposite of a honeymoon is, that’s what she’s facing. “We will deliver, we will deliver, we will deliver,” Truss told the party after her victory was announced—in a flat, boilerplate acceptance speech that was more reminiscent of the awkward, earnest prose of former prime minister Theresa May than Truss’s immediate predecessor, the clownish, charismatic Boris Johnson.
The first order of business will be tackling the energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year and by increased demand as the pandemic fades. In Britain, the average gas and electricity bills of ordinary households are capped by a regulator based on wholesale costs. By October, the typical bill will be three times what it was 12 months earlier, and it is expected to rise again in January. Things are so dystopian that the prize on a breakfast show’s call-in competition today was getting your energy bill paid for the next four months. One well-regarded forecaster expects the average British household to be paying the equivalent of £6,616 ($7,633) a year in gas and electricity bills by April.
Think that’s exorbitant? No price cap exists for businesses and public bodies. Restaurants, museums, nursing homes, and schools are already warning that they cannot cope. Some areas are planning to turn public buildings into “warm banks”—like food banks—for those who can’t afford to heat their homes. For many white-collar Britons, now used to working several days a week from home, high energy bills might drive them back into offices.
Truss can’t do much about gas prices on the European wholesale market. Russia is a major gas supplier to Europe, and Vladimir Putin fully exploits the leverage this gives him in foreign affairs. Nonetheless, the new prime minister will face enormous pressure to support British households through the winter. So far, Truss has rejected the idea of more direct support, insisting that tax cuts are her economic focus. Yesterday she said something no British leader has said for decades: that the richest would gain most from her tax policy, and she thought that was fair. “To look at everything through the lens of redistribution I believe is wrong because what I’m about is about growing the economy and growing the economy benefits everybody,” she told the BBC.
Her embrace of the Laffer curve, a beloved theory on the right contested by mainstream economists, suggests Truss will govern as she has campaigned, at least in this contest. The new Tory leader, who is 47, began her political career as a Liberal Democrat—a centrist—and voted to remain in the European Union in 2016. Since then, though, she has tacked sharply to the right, and has been rewarded with the support of the Conservative Party’s libertarian and socially conservative members. With such a base, she will find it difficult to run bigger deficits to fund government expenditure. And energy bills are far from the only problem facing average Britons. Every public service in the country is crying out for money after a decade of austerity, the disruption of COVID, and now the effects of high inflation. (The current figure is 10.1 percent, and Goldman Sachs predicts it will reach 22 percent next year.)
Taking a train somewhere? Brace yourself for the trip to be canceled, or the car full to bursting: Railway workers have been striking on and off all summer. Waiting to give evidence in a criminal case? The justice system has been beset by delays since the beginning of the pandemic, and prosecutors and criminal-defense lawyers have announced what the BBC describes as an “indefinite, uninterrupted” strike, beginning today. Want to mail a letter? Postal workers have two more strike days scheduled in the next fortnight. Need your cataracts fixed or your hip replaced? Some 6.6 million Britons—2 million more than before the pandemic—are currently on the National Health Service’s waiting list for nonurgent medical care. Need an ambulance? Over the summer, one 87-year-old man with a cracked pelvis waited 15 hours outside his house after a fall. His family made him a makeshift shelter out of a soccer goal, trash bags, and umbrellas.
What makes this omni-crisis even more alarming is how few economic levers Truss can pull. She can’t reverse Brexit, or even soften its implementation: Her party’s activists would eat her alive. A classic response to high inflation is to raise interest rates, but this is a fraught decision in Britain, a country bloated with mortgage debt. In any case, interest rates are set by the Bank of England, rather than the prime minister’s government, to protect them from political interference. Truss made noises about reviewing the bank’s independence during the campaign; yesterday she tried to disavow that suggestion.
Why pick fights voluntarily, when there is so much else to worry about? She might have been playing to the Conservative base to win the leadership election. The only people eligible to vote were dues-paying party members, so Truss spent all summer courting the populist right. Late last month, she was asked whether French President Emmanuel Macron was a “friend or foe.” The answer should have been simple: France is both a key security partner and the favored destination of Britons looking for a nearby sunny beach. And yet: “Jury’s out,” replied Truss. Macron was pleasingly insouciant about the insult, responding to reporters with a perfect Gallic shrug and a long exhalation. Britain, he said, was a strong ally of France, “regardless of its leaders, and sometimes in spite of its leaders.” Other fights are less likely to go away: As a born-again Brexiteer, Truss is preparing for a showdown with the EU over the special status of Northern Ireland. And although culture-war issues have receded in the leadership contest, as the scale of the economic challenge became apparent, Truss’s flouting of progressive orthodoxies (“I’m very clear that a woman is a woman,” she declared at Wembley Arena) is a guaranteed applause line for right-wing audiences.
What skills does Truss bring to this nightmare situation? As the most recent foreign minister, she will be well briefed on the war in Ukraine, the state of EU negotiations, and the risk of relying on imported energy. She has the capacity for intellectual change, having traveled from liberal to conservative, and Remainer to Brexiteer. She has been preparing to be prime minister—plotting, if we’re being unkind—since long before the position became officially vacant, and therefore has her ministerial team already picked and an emergency financial statement scheduled for the next few weeks.
Critics look at Britain’s third female prime minister, with her ink-blue blouses and her purple rhetoric, and call her a Margaret Thatcher tribute act. The test now will be whether Truss can face down an economic crisis as severe as anything her predecessor faced in the 1980s, without dividing the country in the way that Thatcher did.
Good luck, Liz Truss. You’re going to need it.