From policy to pageantry: British PM Liz Truss' dizzying first week

Ms Liz Truss took over a government facing an economic emergency. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

LONDON - Last Tuesday, Prime Minister Liz Truss was moving into Downing Street and puzzling over how to help people pay their soaring gas bills. Two days later, she stepped out of her new home to pay tribute to a revered queen, Elizabeth II, and tell the country that Britain's new king would henceforth be known as Charles III.

Has any British leader had as head-spinning a first week on the job as Ms Truss?

Anointed by the queen in the last act of her 70-year reign, Ms Truss took over a government facing an economic emergency.

But those problems have been all but eclipsed by the queen's death, an epochal event that has put Parliament on hold, moved the spotlight from the cost-of-living crisis to a monarch's legacy, and handed Ms Truss, 47, an unexpected new job as the government's chief mourner.

It's a delicate assignment, one that could elevate Ms Truss' stature internationally but also trip her up at home.

The crosscurrents were evident Monday, when Downing Street walked back a news report that she would be joining King Charles on a mourning tour of the four nations of the United Kingdom.

The report had raised eyebrows among some opposition lawmakers, who viewed her plans as presumptuous. A spokesperson for Ms Truss quickly clarified: The prime minister, he told The Guardian, would attend memorial services for the queen in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, along with King Charles, but would not be "accompanying" the king on a tour.

"I don't know what led to anyone thinking it was a good decision for either of them that she go to the capitals of the UK nations with Charles," said Mr Alastair Campbell, who was director of communications for Mr Tony Blair when he was prime minister, and advised him on his response to the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

"It's not as though he is a novice at these kinds of visits," Mr Campbell said of the 73-year-old king. "She would have been far better advised getting her feet under the table in No. 10 and beginning to focus on the enormous challenges that are going to be there when the mourning is over."

Among those challenges: double-digit inflation, a looming recession, labour unrest and deteriorating public finances.

On Monday, new data showed that Britain's growth stagnated in the three months through July. Hours before the news of the queen's death, Ms Truss announced a sweeping plan to freeze energy rates for millions of households for two years at a probable cost of more than US$100 billion (S$139.64 billion) in its first year.

It was a startling policy response right out of the gate, underscoring the depth of the crisis. But the round-the-clock coverage of the queen has meant the plan has barely been mentioned since.

Parliament has been suspended until after the queen's state funeral on Sept 19. Lawmakers are scheduled to go into recess again on Sept 22 for their parties' conferences, putting politics on hold even longer.

Fears about how the government plans to finance the aid package - with huge increased borrowing rather than by imposing a windfall profits tax on oil and gas companies - are wearing on the bond market and the pound, which has recently plumbed its lowest levels against the dollar since 1985.

"It is a problem that there has effectively been no proper public scrutiny or political debate around a spending package of 5 to 6 per cent of GDP," said Dr Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics and public policy at King's College London.

"In principle, that could be remedied after the funeral," he said. "But I do worry a bit that the government will get used to the lack of scrutiny of their proposals and will attempt to carry on the same vein."

A lack of scrutiny can provide a temporary respite, but over the long term it can be lethal: Ms Jill Rutter, a former official in the Treasury, recalled that the government published details of a new poll tax in January 1986, hours before the Challenger space shuttle exploded in the United States.

It was utterly lost in the news of that disaster, and when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher later imposed the tax, it proved so unpopular that it triggered her downfall.

There is no question that Ms Truss' role in the 10 days of national mourning will give her rare visibility for a new leader.

She has become a dignified daily fixture on television, shaking hands with the king at an audience in Buckingham Palace, walking out of Westminster Hall after his address to Parliament on Monday and speaking at Downing Street about the dawn of a new Carolean age.

She will get a big introduction on the global stage when dozens, or even hundreds, of leaders converge on London for the funeral, putting her at the centre of one of the greatest such gatherings since the funeral of John F. Kennedy.

Like Ms Truss, Mr Blair was quite new in the job when Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris. His description of her as the "people's princess" become one of the most memorable phrases of his decade in office. He also reaped credit for nudging a reticent queen into a more public display of sorrow over Princess Diana's death.

But this time, the royal family does not seem to need public-relations advice. Prince William, Prince Harry, and their spouses appeared in a carefully managed walk outside Windsor Castle on Saturday. A day earlier, King Charles stepped out of his vintage Rolls-Royce at Buckingham Palace to shake hands with well-wishers.

"You could argue it helps her to be visible at these events," Mr Campbell said, "but in all honesty, the public are very focused on the royals and not the politicians." NYTIMES

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