Liz Truss defeated Rishi Sunak in the Tory leadership election, with 57.4 per cent of the vote. (Photo: GEOFF CADDICK via Getty Images)
The Conservative Party’s gruelling and lengthy leadership contest has finally come to a close with the election of Liz Truss as the new prime minister.
Truss comfortably defeated the former chancellor Rishi Sunak, winning 57.4 per cent of the vote.
The race to replace Boris Johnson may have been rough and divisive at times, but for Truss the real struggle is only just beginning.
The foreign secretary could hardly be taking over the leadership mantle at a more turbulent time.
The current challenge she faces has been compared with 1945, when Labour prime minister Clement Attlee was tasked with rebuilding Britain after the horror of the second world war, and 1979, when Margaret Thatcher took over a country riven by industrial strife.
The UK now finds itself enduring similar record-high levels of inflation, a potential looming recession, the prospect of 1970s-style blackouts and strikes by multiple public sector workers that threaten to bring the country to its knees.
The items in Truss’s in-tray could make — or break — her premiership.
Cost of living crisis
By far the most pressing issue Truss will have to act on is the cost of living crisis that is making life unmanageable for millions.
An inflation rate of 10.1 per cent has made basic goods such as food unaffordable for many, while the war in Ukraine has pushed up demand for limited gas supplies that is reflected in soaring energy bills.
Come October, the energy price cap will rise to £3,549 —80 per cent higher than it is now — and is expected to keep on rising to hit an unthinkable £5,000 next year.
The projections are so gloomy that a group called Don’t Pay UK has sprung up, urging people to cancel their direct debits if the government refuses to take any further action to bring them down.
Research suggests more than 1.7million households could refuse to pay their bills this winter, a move that would throw the energy industry into chaos.
Truss is coming under intense pressure to act and there are some signs that she has softened her stance on not offering “handouts” to the hardest-hit.
It is understood she is now considering freezing bills at their current level as part of a £100 billion support package.
Generation X may well be feeing a sense of deja vu as we enter the winter, with reports that Britain may impose organised blackouts to cope with limited energy supplies.
Last week, President Vladimir Putin briefly cut off all Russian gas exports to countries providing financial assistance to Ukraine via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, a sign of the leverage he hopes to exert over critics of his invasion.
While the UK only gets three per cent of its gas supply from Russia, limited supplies to the continent will also push up prices for us due to increased demand.
There is also the fear that Norway, which supplies the UK with about a third of its gas, could be forced to ration exports due to low water levels in the southern part of the country.
Bloomberg reported last month that the UK could be in line for four days of power cuts and blackouts in January, a scenario reminiscent of the troubled 70s.
The thought of people working by candlelight in modern Britain is not an image Truss will like to entertain and is likely to exacerbate public discontent.
Much like the 1970s winter of discontent, the next few months are likely to be dominated by strikes by unions agitated by stagnant wages and rising inflation.
Rail workers have already launched a series of disruptive strikes this summer, as have postmen and barristers.
In the coming months, they could be joined by nurses, teachers, rubbish collectors and council workers — threatening to bring daily life to a standstill.
Already the two largest unions, Unison and Unite, are seeking to co-ordinate strike action for it to have maximum impact.
When Truss calls the next election, most likely in 2024, it will be this backdrop that will remain in voters’ minds as they cast their ballots.
According to the Sunday Times, police forces across the country are braced for a breakdown in public order as the cost of living crisis threatens to throw people into financial disarray.
The newspaper reported that the police are concerned that economic turmoil and financial instability has the “potential to drive increases in particular crime types” such as shoplifting, burglary, fraud and blackmail.
Such tough living conditions have sparked fears that the country could see a repeat of the 2011 riots.
Northern Ireland protocol
As Truss prepares to assemble her Cabinet, she is reportedly finding it difficult to fill the post of Northern Ireland secretary.
It is not hard to understand why: the protocol that governs trade between mainland Britain and and the province has been the thorn in the side of Brexiteers and has damaged relations with the EU.
The UK is running out of time to respond to a series of legal challenges launched by the bloc over what it considers to be breaches of the agreement.
Brussels says Truss’s plans to unilaterally override aspects of the protocol breaks international law, while the plans are also likely to receive short shrift in the House of Lords.
The EU has already warned Truss against continuing her combative stance towards the protocol.
Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney told RTE following Truss’s election: “I think the last thing Britain wants and needs... is a trade war between the EU and the UK.”
Truss has set herself on a collision course with Nicola Sturgeon, her counterpart north of the border, who is intent on holding another Scottish independence referendum in 2023.
In order for a legal referendum to be held, the UK government must transfer the necessary power to the Scottish Parliament, as it did at the time of the first indyref in 2014.
That has prompted the Scottish government to ask the Supreme Court to rule on the legality of holding its own referendum without Westminster’s blessing.
If that fails, Sturgeon has said she will make the next general election a “de facto referendum” on independence.
For all the trouble he faced at home, Boris Johnson forged a positive reputation in Ukraine thanks to the UK’s early decision to arm and provide training to help the country resist Russia’s invasion.
President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly expressed his “sadness” at Johnson’s removal, describing him as a “true friend”.
And he urged the outgoing prime minister not to “disappear” and said he could only “pray” that his replacement would offer support at the “same level as I had with prime minister Johnson”.
Truss has big shoes to fill in the eyes of Ukrainians and will come under pressure to keep up support for the country as well as honouring leadership pledges such as increasing defence spending to three per cent of GDP.
The ghost of Boris Johnson
Zelensky’s wishes for Johnson not to disappear may well be granted.
Some reports suggest the maverick PM, who remains saddened by his departure from No.10, may make another comeback.
The ink may not even be dry on the Tory leadership result, but already Johnson’s supporters are thought to be preparing to send in letters to 1922 chairman Sir Graham Brady to trigger another vote of no confidence in Truss before Christmas — potentially paving the way for a Boris comeback.
Senior Tories have warned that such a move would be “suicidal” for a party that stands accused of indulging in internal politics while the country falls apart.
In the autumn, the partygate scandal that helped end Johnson’s premiership promises to dig up old wounds as the privileges committee launches its investigation into whether Johnson misled parliament over the affair.
Against the backdrop of Johnson’s troubled legacy, Truss may struggle to carve out her own reputation as a leader.
The new PM may soon find that winning the was the easy part, and that governing a divided party and country will prove the more difficult task.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.