What to do with the biggest cost-of-living crisis in a generation, a divided political party and country, and some very troublesome relationships with your closest neighbours?
These are some of the challenges that will determine the future of the UK’s new Prime Minister Liz Truss.
Truss will not have long to grapple with these dilemmas. Every new UK prime minister has about 100 days to make his or her political mark, but Truss does not have 100 days or even 100 hours. She has a much shorter period to announce to the British public her new emergency plan to tackle the cost-of-living crisis.
After a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II on Tuesday, Truss was appointed to form a new government, replacing former prime minister Boris Johnson.
She is the 15th prime minister in Queen Elisabeth’s II reign. The meeting between the two women did not escape the shadows of Truss’ previous positions when she once called for the abolition of the monarchy in Britain as an “outdated” system.
Truss said during the campaign to succeed Johnson that her political views had changed dramatically since she was a student at Oxford University in the 1990s.
Less than 24 hours after being elected as the new Conservative Party leader and thus prime minister, Truss has begun to form her new government, which is expected to be made up of loyalists.
Kwasi Kwarteng, whose family emigrated to the UK from Ghana in the 1960s, is expected to be named finance minister, while James Cleverly, of Sierra Leonean origin, is expected to be named the new foreign minister. Suella Braverman, of Indian origin, will be the home secretary.
In addition to Truss, Britain’s third female prime minister, the rest of the appointments will mean there will be no white men in the four most senior positions in the British government.
The new prime minister is scheduled to announce details of her emergency plan to address the cost-of-living crisis on Thursday.
The plan is expected to freeze household energy bills at around £2,500, plus a £400 handout to every British household. UK Treasury sources said that the government was planning an intervention in the wholesale gas and electricity markets that would benefit both domestic and business customers.
It is thought the government plans to freeze household bills at their current level through this winter and next.
The BBC said that according to the plan the energy companies would take out government-guaranteed loans to bridge the gap between the wholesale price in the market and the fixed price they are charging customers. Those loans would be repaid over the next 10 to 20 years through supplements to customers’ bills.
The precise mechanism to help businesses may be more complicated and could be reviewed more frequently, but reports suggest it could see the government mandate energy firms to offer specific reductions on the unit price of the energy businesses use.
The way that the energy companies would be reimbursed for their losses on sales to business customers is also unclear.
The government estimates that the total package will amount to somewhere between £100 to 130 billion, but the ultimate figure will depend on movements in the international energy markets, so it could be less, or it could be a lot more.
It is also unclear how the government will treat its exposure to the energy market through its loan guarantees, as there is a risk that the energy companies might be unable to repay their loans if their domestic customers are unable to pay or if their business customers go bust.
The proposed plans have aroused immediate concerns as they “only postpone” the payment of energy bills, rather than cancelling or reducing them.
In addition to the cost-of-living crisis, Truss will have to unite the Conservative Party behind her leadership.
Her winning margin against her rival, former finance minister Rishi Sunak, was much narrower than expected and the narrowest in any Conservative leadership election held this century.
In addition to the ideological differences between the hard-right wing and centre-right wing of the party, powerful MPs want Truss to stop the parliamentary inquiry against Johnson headed by prominent Labour MP Harriet Harmann.
The outcome of this investigation could determine Johnson’s political future because if the committee concludes that he “misled parliament” about whether his government broke the lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic, Johnson could be suspended from parliament, opening the way for a by-election in his constituency.
Supporters of Johnson, some of them Truss allies such as MPs Ian Duncan Smith, Therese Coffey, Nadine Dorries, and Suella Braverman, will do everything they can to prevent this scenario.
The dilemma for Truss is that if she succumbs to the pressure, it will block the way for the party’s unity behind her.
During the campaign to succeed Johnson, Truss had the support of less than half of the party’s MPs, which means that her path to unity was never going to be easy. Her inclinations now may determine her chances of success or failure.
Although Johnson could go back to writing his weekly column in the Daily Telegraph newspaper for £275,000 a year, or writing his autobiography for several million pounds, or giving public talks for hundreds of thousands of pounds, the rumour in Westminster is that Johnson wants to follow in the footsteps of former US president Donald Trump by trying to make a comeback to the political scene.
In his farewell speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street, he claimed that his premiership was a relay race cut short by rules that were “changed halfway through”, adding that he was “like Cincinnatus, I am returning to my plough.”
Cincinnatus was a 5th-century BCE Roman politician who left politics and “returned to his farm,” only to make a return years later.
Since his ousting, Johnson has not denied rumours about his intention to try to make a political comeback. A few days ago in an interview with the TV channel Sky News, he refused to rule out a possible political return.
These rumours are bad news for Johnson’s successor because his supporters might not rally around the new prime minister, waiting for a bump or a wrong decision to lead to Johnson’s being re-elected as party leader.
Truss will be looking over her shoulder as she tries to deal with some of the most complicated crises in the UK’s recent history.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.