LONDON: British politics returns to center stage after Queen Elizabeth’s funeral today, with Prime Minister Liz Truss signaling her priorities by flying to her first major summit and rushing measures to avert an economic slump.
Since the Queen’s death on September 8, politics – or at least discussion of its pros and cons – has been on pause for a period of national mourning, out of respect for a monarch who has reigned for 70 years.
The timing of the policy hiatus has been frustrating for some in government as it comes after a two-month leadership campaign and Britain is at risk of falling into a protracted recession and facing an energy crisis threatening the finances of millions.
But it has given some Truss ministers time to settle into their new departments and refine their policies, according to sources. It just makes for a busy week ahead.
New guidelines will be crammed into the few days at the end of the week in parliament, which the government hopes will sit for an extra day on Friday before disbanding for the annual season of caucuses.
These include a support package to help businesses cope with soaring energy prices, a statement on potential reductions in waiting times for treatments at the UK’s National Health Service and much-promised tax cuts to boost growth.
She will also meet US President Joe Biden at the UN General Assembly tomorrow after meeting several leaders who have traveled to attend the Queen’s funeral, where a congregation of 2,000 paid their last respects.
“I think we’re going to see a focused, punchy start that shows momentum and direction free from distractions and side drama,” said a veteran member of the ruling Conservative Party. “The policies were already there, but they were bedded into the departments (during the mourning period).”
On her second full day in office, Truss made a big announcement about action to ease the pain of sky-high energy prices – but this was overshadowed hours later by news the Queen had died.
The new prime minister needed to switch gears immediately and focus on setting the right tone in speeches and tributes to the queen, while maintaining some distance to allow the royal family to lead. For some in her ruling Conservative Party, the pause softened any criticism of her expensive first steps.
And while their spokesmen avidly declined to make any announcements during the national period of mourning, their government went on with its work, with a source saying its ministers were even at the Treasury on Sunday.
Other institutions also scaled back outreach, with Britain’s financial industry canceling events and postponing gatherings during the mourning, which culminated in a bank holiday on Monday — something that could hurt economic output by 0.2 percentage points this month.
Truss’s overarching mantra for what she wants to achieve in government is “growth,” believing that by boosting economic growth she can solve many other long-standing problems.
That will appear in their financial report, or mini-budget, which is expected to be presented by their finance minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, on Friday, when he scraps an increase in social security contributions and freezes the corporate income tax.
Kwarteng will also provide an estimated cost for the energy package, but it’s up to the business department to offer the details. He could also announce the end of banker bonus caps, but no decisions were made last week.
On Thursday, the Bank of England is set to hike interest rates to fight inflation, seemingly moving in the opposite direction to Kwarteng, whose tax cuts could stoke prices.
Her team have made it clear that she does not want the “distractions” that have rocked the tenure of her predecessor Boris Johnson, who was eventually ousted by his own party after months of missteps and scandals.
Kwarteng’s decision to sack the Treasury’s top official caused some consternation, but was largely overshadowed by the Queen’s death.
But while Parliament will be heavily focused on dealing with domestic issues, Truss’ first port of call will be New York.
There she will attend the annual UN gathering of world leaders, taking the opportunity to have what Downing Street has described as a “full bilateral meeting” with Biden, rather than an informal meeting in London on the sidelines of the funeral.
Britain has long touted its so-called special relationship with the US, but ties have been tested, particularly over Brexit and Truss’ decision to introduce legislation to unilaterally amend a post-Brexit trade deal with Northern Ireland.
Biden has long expressed concerns about Northern Ireland’s future, but the two will find more common ground in their strong stance on Russia and China. As secretary of state, Truss described the relationship as “special, but not exclusive.”
For a woman who said she would rule from day one, she set a tough agenda.