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Liz Truss to replace Boris Johnson as next U.K. prime minister

Incoming U.K. prime minister Liz Truss promised a “bold plan” Sept. 5 to cut taxes and grow the economy and “deliver on the energy crisis.” (Video: AP)
8 min

LONDON — Liz Truss will become the next prime minister of Britain, taking over from Boris Johnson at a time of economic peril and political upheaval in the United Kingdom.

Truss, Britain’s 47-year-old foreign secretary, won the support of her party’s grass roots with promises of tax cuts and with her fealty to Johnson, who was booted from Downing Street by Conservative lawmakers but is already missed by rank-and-file party members.

She will travel to Scotland on Tuesday to be appointed by Queen Elizabeth II and then enter 10 Downing Street as the third woman to serve as British prime minister.

Britain's Conservative Party chose Liz Truss on Sept. 5 to replace Boris Johnson and lead the party and the country. (Video: The Washington Post)

Truss is far less colorful, less verbose than her former backslapping boss — perhaps in a good way. Johnson was ousted by his lawmakers in his own party because he couldn’t, even when pressed, tell the whole truth during a string of scandals.

Who is Liz Truss, a shapeshifter set to be U.K.’s next prime minister?

Truss wasn’t the top choice of Conservative Party lawmakers, and a majority of Britons tell pollsters she will be a “poor” or “terrible” prime minister, but she was the favorite among the Tory activists who selected the leader of their party and Britain in a vote announced Monday.

In a brief speech accepting leadership of the party, Truss remained loyal and gave Johnson props. “Boris you got Brexit done, you crushed [Labour Party leader] Jeremy Corbyn, you rolled out the vaccine and you stood up to Vladimir Putin. You are admired from Kyiv to Carlisle,” she said, referring a small city in northern England.

At one point during the five-minute speech, Truss read in a monotone: “We will deliver, we will deliver, we will deliver” — to a smattering of applause by her party members. Commentators often declare her oratory “wooden.” Although she’s an optimist like Johnson, she doesn’t go for the fist pumping or metaphor-making he is known for.

Challenger Rishi Sunak — though the preferred choice among Conservative members of Parliament — had a tough time convincing his party’s voters that tackling inflation should come before tax cuts. And Sunak’s leading role in Johnson’s ouster seemed to hurt him with the grass roots. Angry Tories called him a “Brutus.”

It was Sunak’s fiery departure as chancellor of the exchequer, or finance minister, in July that launched the revolt against Johnson. An avalanche of resignations followed. Conservative Party lawmakers said they could no longer trust a prime minister who prevaricated his way through scandal after scandal (and could no longer be counted on to help win elections).

Because this was not a general election, most of Britain was sitting on the sidelines while a “selectorate” of 172,437 dues-paying Conservative Party members — less than 0.3 percent of the population — determined the country’s political future.

Truss won with 81,326 votes, ahead of Sunak’s 60,399.

According to a YouGov poll, 12 percent of the general public say Truss will be a good or great prime minister compared with 52 percent who say she will be poor or terrible.

In addition to the war in Ukraine and the fallout of Brexit, the new prime minister will inherit a vast range of economic and political problems. The Bank of England predicts Britain will suffer through protracted recession, beginning as early as October. Inflation already stands at 10 percent, with economists warning that 15 percent is possible.

In her victory speech, Truss pledged to “deliver a bold plan to cut taxes and grow our economy.”

The British public is alarmed at skyrocketing gas and electric bills, an issue that will dominate Truss’s domestic agenda from Day 1, wiping out the honeymoon period often awarded to incoming leaders. Truss has promised to help with those bills — but she hasn’t said how.

Other pressing challenges include threats of industrial action, ongoing questions about Scottish independence and the Northern Ireland protocol, which could put her on an early collision course with Europe.

“She has an outstanding inbox,” said Bronwen Maddox, director of Chatham House, a U.K. think tank. “In terms of the known knowns, what is facing her is huge.”

In an opinion piece in the Sunday Telegraph, Truss described Britain as stuck with low productivity, high taxes, overregulation and an inability to do big things. “We will break with the same old tax and spend approach by focusing on growth and investment,” she said. She complained of the “heaviest tax burden in 70 years.” She said it was outrageous that there had not been a new water reservoir or nuclear power plant built in a quarter-century.

The disconnect of her words was noted by her critics, who pointed out that Truss didn’t mention that her party has been in power for the past 12 years — and that she has served in the cabinet since 2012 — so these problems were the doings of the Conservatives.

Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer tweeted: “I’d like to congratulate our next Prime Minister Liz Truss as she prepares for office. But after 12 years of the Tories all we have to show for it is low wages, high prices, and a Tory cost of living crisis. Only Labour can deliver the fresh start our country needs.”

On the specifics, it’s hard to know what to expect from Truss, because she hasn’t revealed any details. She is a shapeshifting politician. She was a centrist Liberal Democrat in her youth before joining the Conservative Party; she argued for abolishing the monarchy before affirming her support for it; and she voted for Britain to remain in the European Union before becoming a hardcore Brexiteer.

As foreign secretary, she was a reliable NATO ally and Ukraine supporter, talking tough on Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. She led the charge on sanctioning oligarchs — many who had been living the high life in London.

Before the announcement of Truss as prime minister, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia expected no improvement in relations with Britain regardless of who was elected, because both candidates had “obviously been competing in anti-Russian rhetoric.” He said it was “hard to imagine a worse situation” in relations, “but, unfortunately, we cannot rule this out.”

While unpopular in Moscow, Truss also has few fans in Brussels. E.U. leaders see her as an agitator, an anti-Europe opportunist who could make matters even worse in the rocky post-divorce relationship between Britain and the 27-nation bloc.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen congratulated Truss on Monday, saying, “I look forward to a constructive relationship, in full respect of our agreements.”

Britain’s version of Inauguration Day will take place on Tuesday.

Johnson and Truss will travel to Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where the queen is staying.

Queen’s first meeting with U.K. prime minister to happen in Scotland, not Buckingham Palace

In a private audience, Johnson will bow to the queen and tender his resignation. Soon after, in a ceremony known as “kissing hands,” Truss will bow or curtsy and ask the queen for permission to form a new government.

The new prime minister is expected to address the British public back in London later in the day.

This will be the 96-year-old queen’s 15th prime minister.

The United Kingdom will also join the small club of nations that have had at least three female heads of government.

In Britain’s case, all of its female leaders — Truss, Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher — have come from the Conservative Party, even though the Tories have fewer female lawmakers than do the other main political parties.

Truss has ruled out calling an early general election to cement her mandate from the British public — as opposed to just Tory party activists, who represent a tiny sliver of the population. In her remarks on Monday, she declared: “We will deliver a great victory for the Conservative Party in 2024.”

Even among the Conservative Party members who cast ballots in the leadership race, Truss’s percentage of the vote share — 57 percent — was smaller than any of the other Conservative leaders selected this way.

Johnson won a big majority in a general election in December 2019, six months after being installed as party leader. His predecessor, May, also called an early election, which lost her a parliamentary majority.

In one of his final acts as prime minister, Johnson flew in a Typhoon fighter jet and proclaimed that after “three happy years in the cockpit,” he was happy to hand over the “controls seamlessly to someone else.”

What next for Boris Johnson? Books, columns, speeches, comeback?

On Monday, Johnson tweeted his congratulations to Truss and her “decisive win.” That was tucked into in a Twitter thread that began with a boast about his own accomplishments.

Many say Johnson will attempt a comeback.

Robyn Dixon in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.