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British lawmaker Liz Truss speaks after winning the Conservative Party leadership contest at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London.

Here’s why new prime minister Liz Truss faces UK’s most difficult challenges since World War II

Incoming U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss faces a slew of problems, including high inflation and a potential recession as well as a deeply divided Conservative Party inherited from Boris Johnson. AP Photo/Frank Augstein

Liz Truss rises to prime minister at a time of crisis for the U.K. economy, says Pablo Calderón Martínez, an assistant professor in politics and international relations at Northeastern in London.

“She has the most difficult brief of any new prime minister probably since the end of World War II,” Calderón Martínez says.

The former British foreign secretary inherits many problems, including high inflation, a potential recession, surging energy costs and anticipated fuel shortages for the winter ahead. Her party has been divided by the scandals that consumed the three-year reign of her Tory predecessor, Boris Johnson, in whose cabinet Truss served.

Conservative voters selected Truss based on her campaign for lower taxes and diminished government. She beat her final-round opponent, Rishi Sunak, despite his warning that taxes shouldn’t be cut until Britain curbs its bout of double-digit inflation. Another major difference separating the two candidates was Truss’s perceived loyalty to Johnson, whose demise was instigated in July by Sunak’s resignation as chancellor of the Exchequer.

Truss is the fourth prime minister in six tumultuous years of British politics. She becomes the third woman to head the government, following Margaret Thatcher (1979-90) and Theresa May (2016-19). The move will be official on Tuesday when Johnson bids farewell in a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II, who will then formally hand leadership over to Truss.

Truss was raised in a liberal family and supported the centrists as a student at Oxford before joining the Conservatives after college. She supported Brexit only after it was approved in a 2016 referendum.

Calderón Martínez spoke with News@Northeastern about her questionable economic plans, the possibility that she will be flexible, and the pressures she’ll be facing from Day One. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What is the biggest issue facing the new prime minister?

It’s the cost-of-living crisis. Prices are going through the roof and the economic challenges are massive.

Is her call for tax cuts creating confidence?

A lot of people have been very critical of her economic rationale. The U.K. has high inflation which is leading to higher interest rates. If you’re paying 2% to 3% less in income tax, that doesn’t offset the 10% rise in your mortgage. 

People are saying, “What am I going to do if my energy bill goes from 1,000 pounds to 3,000 pounds? And if on top of that my mortgage is going from 1,000 pounds to 1,700 pounds?” 

She gave an interview on Sunday and her answer was that we have to stop focusing on redistribution and we need to focus on making a bigger [economic] pie. I think that has made a lot of people very nervous and on edge, particularly if you’re not well off. People are starting to get desperate for some action because it’s been two months of complete inactivity [during the campaign].

To what extent will her administration be shadowed by Boris Johnson?

It’s about trust in government. The division that has emerged in the Conservative Party between Johnson loyalists and the people that wanted to get him out since the very beginning is pretty much similar to what we’ve seen in the U.S. for the Republican Party [around Donald Trump]. It’s almost a battle for the soul of the Conservative Party.

Balancing these different groups is going to be very challenging for her.

Truss earned 57% in an election that was exclusive to Conservative voters because their party held the government when Johnson resigned. Was her 15-point margin of victory over Sunak significant?

It’s rare for Conservative leadership elections to be that close. Conservative voters tend to back one candidate overwhelmingly. 

Boris Johnson got elected in a landslide victory and look what happened to him. As soon as they saw him as a little bit of a political liability, out he goes.

Are you saying Truss will be under immediate pressure?

She’s working close to the edge because there’s no margin for error for her. She has a huge faction within the party. The election was a lot closer than most people thought it would be and that’s quite uncomfortable for her. And she’s facing huge economic issues. So with the first whiff of trouble, I wouldn’t put it past the Tories to get rid of her again and elect someone else in a year. They are that kind of body.

Could she turn out to be a flexible leader capable of dismissing ideology in favor of practical solutions?

I don’t see her married to any particular ideology. She’s very flexible and whatever argument seems to be winning the day, she will follow that argument.

The economic issues facing the country are really desperate. We’re talking about an impending recession, inflation, the costs of energy—those are huge issues that require strong direction and decision-making. You have to have a clear sense of what it is you’re going to do. And I don’t necessarily think that Liz Truss has that.

But I also think we have to give her a little bit of time. It can be unfair to ask candidates for any job to say exactly what they are going to do. She might just find that this thing is going terribly and she completely changes her approach. 

Boris Johnson was very good at campaigning and terrible at governing. I don’t think Liz Truss is particularly good at campaigning, so I’m hoping she’s better at governing than Boris was. I hope it evens itself out.

Is it significant that a woman is prime minister for the third time?

It tells us a lot about the huge strides in political life that the U.K. has made, where a woman becoming prime minister is no longer a big deal.

But at the same time, in the case of Theresa May, I think she was in many instances unfairly criticized because she was a woman—for what she was wearing, for how she presented herself. In answer to the question, “Would you see yourself having a pint with her at the pub?” most people said no, and I think a lot of it was based on gender. I think that her struggles with the electorate had a lot to do with the fact that she was a woman.

For media inquiries, please contact Ed Gavaghan at e.gavaghan@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.

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