Liz Truss has been chosen to replace Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party, becoming Britain’s fourth prime minister in six years.
The foreign secretary beat her main rival, former finance minister Rishi Sunak, by 81,326 votes to 60,399, after a two-month campaign.
Truss, 47, will be the third woman to serve as leader of the United Kingdom, after her idol Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May.
The queen is scheduled to formally name Truss as Britain’s prime minister on Tuesday. The ceremony will take place at Balmoral estate in Scotland, where the monarch is having a holiday, rather than at Buckingham Palace.
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Truss inherits an economy heading into a potentially lengthy recession and will need to jump straight into tackling the cost-of-living crisis walloping Britain.
Thanks in large part to global gas price volatility triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the average UK household energy bill is jumping to more than £3500 (NZ$6600) a year – almost triple the level a year ago.
Inflation is above 10% for the first time since the 1980s. The government is facing increasingly urgent calls to deliver financial support to help millions pay for essential heating and electricity to get through the winter.
The opposition Labour Party and other critics have accused the Tory government of being “missing in action” during a summer of discontent that saw tens of thousands of rail staff, port and postal workers, lawyers and rubbish collectors go on strike to demand better pay to keep up with spiralling costs.
“I will deliver a bold plan to cut taxes and grow our economy,” Truss said after her victory. “I will deliver on the energy crisis, dealing with people’s energy bills, but also dealing with the long-term issues we have on energy supply.”
She thanked her predecessor Johnson, whom she referred to as a “friend”.
“I also want to thank our outgoing leader, my friend, Boris Johnson. Boris, you got Brexit done. You crushed Jeremy Corbyn. You rolled out the vaccine and you stood up to Vladimir Putin. You are admired from Kyiv to Carlisle,” Truss said. “We will deliver a great victory for the Conservative Party in 2024.”
Truss was congratulated by leaders around the world, including New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
“New Zealand has an exceptionally strong relationship with the United Kingdom based on our shared values, history and culture,” Ardern said.
She added Truss had been “a staunch supporter of the UK’s ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific” and played a key role in advancing New Zealand’s trade pact with Britain.
“We are looking forward to working closely with Prime Minister Truss and her Cabinet to progress a range of shared interests, including: ratification of the NZUK FTA, implementing the extension to the youth mobility scheme, climate change, the Pacific, and supporting Ukraine,” Ardern said.
EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said she looked forward to “a constructive relationship” to address challenges, including climate change to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “in full respect of our agreements”.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he would work closely with Truss to realise a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, a vision promoted by Japan and the US to counter China’s maritime assertiveness in the region.
Truss won the support of many Conservatives with her Thatcherite zeal to roll back state intervention and slash taxes.
Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at Nottingham University, said Truss’ politics had played well with the estimated 180,000 Conservative Party grassroots members who have a say in choosing the country’s leader. But many have low expectations that she will deliver much financial relief to the country’s poorest.
“This is someone who believes in the market in a radical way, someone who believes that the objective of government is to get towards a much smaller state sooner rather than later. She takes that very seriously,” Fielding said.
“So I think we’re going to have a very radical, right-wing, free market prime minister and one that actually is more of an ideologist than a pragmatist.”
Mark Littlewood, a libertarian commentator who has known Truss since their university days at Oxford, said Britain’s new leader was less a conservative than a “radical”, who – like Thatcher – wants to “roll back the intervention of the state” in people’s lives.
“I’m expecting a lot of fireworks and a lot of controversy and a lot of action,” he said.
While the economy is certain to dominate the first months of the new premier’s term, Truss will also have to steer the UK on the international stage in the face of Russia’s war in Ukraine, an increasingly assertive China and ongoing tensions with the European Union over the aftermath of Brexit – especially in Northern Ireland.
Truss has talked tough as foreign secretary on all three main issues, though some analysts believe she may tone down her “robust” rhetoric after she’s sworn in.
“I think on each of those issues, the most domestically popular thing was to be quite tough – now that might change in future,” said David Lawrence, a research fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank.
One key aspect of foreign policy to look out for is whether Truss would put an influential group of Conservative “China hawks” in government, Lawrence added.
“If she does, then I think we will see a much more hawkish nudge in that direction when it comes to the UK-China policy,” he said.
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