As Liz Truss takes over, Boris Johnson looks in the mirror and sees a Roman leader
LONDON – Liz Truss took over as British Prime Minister on Tuesday after being formally appointed by Queen Elizabeth at a castle in Scotland during a ceremony known as the "kissing of the hands" – though no hands were actually kissed and outgoing leader Boris Johnson threatened to upstage Truss in a valedictory speech in which he used an obscure classical allusion to hint at a possible comeback.
Truss, 47, became the third female prime minister in British history after Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) and Theresa May (2016-2019) following the meeting at Balmoral Castle, in Aberdeenshire, where the queen usually spends her summers.
Photos released to media showed the 96-year-old monarch wearing a cardigan and tartan skirt and leaning on a walking stick as she greeted Truss, shook her hand and invited her form a new government in the wake of Johnson's resignation. With that simple interaction, Truss became the 56th British prime minister.
During the queen's 70-year reign she has done this – "kissing of the hands" – 15 times before, although this is the first time her participation in the ceremony took place outside London. The event was moved to Balmoral Castle amid what Buckingham Palace described as the queen's "mobility issues." Johnson also made the 1,000-mile round trip to tender his resignation, which the Palace said the queen was "pleased to accept."
- Truss was named the new U.K. prime minister on Monday after an internal Conservative Party contest following Johnson's resignation in July. She defeated Rishi Sunak, a former banker who served as Johnson's finance minister.
- In his Tuesday farewell speech, Johnson compared himself to Roman statesman Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a military leader in the early days of the Roman Republic. Cincinnatus was a symbol of civic virtue, especially in times of crisis. "This is it folks," Johnson said as he spoke outside Downing Street, the prime minister's official office and residence. "Like Cincinnatus, I am returning to my plough and I will be offering this government nothing but the most fervent support."
- But the Cincinnatus namedrop could be a coded reference to Johnson's ambition to one day lead the country again. Cincinnatus resigned from power – he was a dictator – only to return later on. Johnson will for now remain a lawmaker. In his speech, Johnson added that he was proud of what he regarded as his achievements, such as steering Britain out of the European Union, support for Ukraine in Russia's illegitimate war and a fast rollout of the coronavirus vaccine.
- "On the subject of bouncing around in future careers, let me say that I am now like one of those booster rockets that has fulfilled its function," he said. "And I will now be gently re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down invisibly in some remote and obscure corner of the Pacific."
- In her first major speech as prime minister, which was short and to the point, Truss paid tribute to Johnson for "delivering Brexit (the U.K.'s exit from the EU), the COVID vaccine (rollout) and standing up to Russian aggression in Ukraine." She said "now is the time to tackle the issues holding Britain back." Truss said she would build roads, homes and make sure the country had quicker Internet services. Truss said she wants to turn Britain into “an aspiration nation" by cutting taxes and boosting growth and investment.
What happens now?
- A self-described Thatcher acolyte, Truss favors a combination of low taxes, a smaller state and, like Johnson, feels Britain's EU exit will enable the country to prosper in ways that the bloc did not allow.
- Over the coming hours and days, Truss will start appointing a pro-growth Cabinet that shares her right-leaning ideology. Kwasi Kwarteng is widely expected to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, similar to finance minister. If Kwarteng gets the job he would be the first Black person to hold Britain's second most powerful job. Kwarteng has promised a "lean state" under Truss.
- On Wednesday, Truss will be subject to a political baptism by fire when she takes part in Prime Minister's Questions, or PMQs, a weekly event broadcast live in which the serving prime minister squares off against the leader of the opposition for a series of mostly spontaneous, open-style questions from lawmakers. The sessions tend to get rowdy and shouty; previous prime ministers have said, after leaving office, that they dreaded the PMQs.
- Truss served in Johnson's government as foreign secretary. She is familiar with many world leaders. It's not clear which of her counterparts around the globe she will call first. British media have suggested it could be Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Truss has advocated a hardline approach to Russia over the Ukraine war. President Joe Biden plans to speak with Truss on Tuesday, according to White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre.
- Truss is under pressure to intervene in Britain's energy markets to relieve spiraling household energy costs, which are some of the highest in Europe. She said in her speech Tuesday that she would "take action this week." Economists have predicted Truss could move to freeze the cost of rising energy bills.
What are they saying
- Biden congratulated Truss in a tweet. "I look forward to deepening the special relationship between our countries and working in close cooperation on global challenges, including continued support for Ukraine as it defends itself against Russian aggression," he wrote on the social media platform.
- “At the heart of her political identity is a notion which is both a strength and a potentially calamitous weakness – a love of the notion of being a disrupter which injects a deliberate unpredictability into her approach towards a world in extreme flux," said Bronwen Maddox, director of the London-based think tank Chatham House, of Truss. “If she indulges this without good judgment, she could do real damage to Britain’s prospects and standing in the world"
- Truss's priority "should be serious, strengthened relations with the EU, using the language to match,” said Maddox, referring to Britain's departure from the EU and a number of lingering issues that exit has caused, including disagreements over what to do with the border between Northern Ireland (part of the U.K.) and Ireland (part of the EU).
- In Russia, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Truss would not be good for the U.K. "I don't think this will help to maintain, or strengthen, the position of the country ... London has for quite a long time been actively trying to compensate for the loss of identity and influence in the EU by taking drastic steps on the world stage, including aggressive actions over the situation that has developed around Ukraine."
- Zelenskyy, by contrast, said he looked forward to working with Truss. "I believe that together we will be able to do a lot more to protect our nations and to thwart all Russian destructive efforts."
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