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From Policy to Pageantry: Prime Minister Liz Truss’s Dizzying First Week

LONDON — Last Tuesday, Prime Minister Liz Truss was moving into Downing Street and puzzling over how to help people pay their soaring gas bills. Two days later, she stepped out of her new home to pay tribute to a revered queen, Elizabeth II, and tell the country that Britain’s new king would henceforth be known as Charles III.

Has any British leader had as head-spinning a first week on the job as Ms. Truss?

Anointed by the queen in the last act of her 70-year reign, Ms. Truss took over a government facing an economic emergency. But those problems have been all but eclipsed by the queen’s death, an epochal event that has put Parliament on hold, moved the spotlight from the cost-of-living crisis to a monarch’s legacy, and handed Ms. Truss, 47, an unexpected new job as the government’s chief mourner.

It’s a delicate assignment, one that could elevate Ms. Truss’s stature internationally but also trip her up at home. The crosscurrents were evident on Monday, when Downing Street walked back a news report that she would be joining King Charles on a mourning tour of the four nations of the United Kingdom.

The report had raised eyebrows among some opposition lawmakers, who viewed her plans as presumptuous. A spokesman for Ms. Truss quickly clarified: The prime minister, he told The Guardian, would attend memorial services for the queen in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, along with Charles, but would not be “accompanying” the king on a tour.

King Charles III and Prime Minister Liz Truss last week, during their first meeting at Buckingham Palace.Credit…Pool photo by Yui Mok

“I don’t know what led to anyone thinking it was a good decision for either of them that she go to the capitals of the U.K. nations with Charles,” said Alastair Campbell, who was director of communications for Tony Blair when he was prime minister, and advised him on his response to the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

“It’s not as though he is a novice at these kinds of visits,” Mr. Campbell said of the 73-year-old king. “She would have been far better advised getting her feet under the table in No. 10 and beginning to focus on the enormous challenges that are going to be there when the mourning is over.”

Among those challenges: double-digit inflation, a looming recession, labor unrest and deteriorating public finances. On Monday, new data showed that Britain’s growth stagnated in the three months through July. Hours before the news of the queen’s death, Ms. Truss announced a sweeping plan to freeze energy rates for millions of households for two years at a probable cost of more than $100 billion in its first year.

It was a startling policy response right out of the gate, underscoring the depth of the crisis. But the round-the-clock coverage of the queen has meant the plan has barely been mentioned since. Parliament has been suspended until after the queen’s state funeral on Sept. 19. Lawmakers are scheduled to go into recess again on Sept. 22 for their parties’ conferences, putting politics on hold even longer.

Fears about how the government plans to finance the aid package — with huge increased borrowing rather than by imposing a windfall profits tax on oil and gas companies — are wearing on the bond market and the pound, which has recently plumbed its lowest levels against the dollar since 1985.

“It is a problem that there has effectively been no proper public scrutiny or political debate around a spending package of 5 to 6 percent of G.D.P.,” said Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London.

Shoppers at a supermarket in London last month, when inflation rose to 10.1 percent.Credit…Frank Augstein/Associated Press

“In principle, that could be remedied after the funeral,” he said. “But I do worry a bit that the government will get used to the lack of scrutiny of their proposals and will attempt to carry on the same vein.”

A lack of scrutiny can provide a temporary respite, but over the long term it can be lethal: Jill Rutter, a former official in the Treasury, recalled that the government published details of a new poll tax in January 1986, hours before the Challenger space shuttle exploded in the United States. It was utterly lost in the news of that disaster, and when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher later imposed the tax, it proved so unpopular that it triggered her downfall.

There is no question that Ms. Truss’s role in the 10 days of national mourning will give her rare visibility for a new leader. She has become a dignified daily fixture on television, shaking hands with the king at an audience in Buckingham Palace, walking out of Westminster Hall after his address to Parliament on Monday and speaking at Downing Street about the dawn of a new Carolean age.

She will get a big introduction on the global stage when dozens, or even hundreds, of leaders converge on London for the funeral, putting her at the center of one of the greatest such gatherings since the funeral of John F. Kennedy.

Like Ms. Truss, Mr. Blair was quite new in the job when Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris. His description of her as the “people’s princess” become one of the most memorable phrases of his decade in office. He also reaped credit for nudging a reticent queen into a more public display of sorrow over Diana’s death.

How the World Reacted to the Queen’s Death

Queen Elizabeth II’s death elicited an array of reactions around the globe, from heartfelt tributes to anti-monarchist sentiment.

  • In Britain: As Britons come to terms with the loss of the woman who embodied the country for 70 years, many are unsure of their nation’s identity and role in the world.
  • In the U.S.: In few places outside Britain was the outpouring of grief so striking as in the faraway former British colony, which she never ruled and rarely visited.
  • In Scotland: At a time of renewed mobilization for Scottish independence, respect for the queen could temporarily dampen the heated debate.
  • In the Commonwealth: For nations with British colonial histories, the queen’s death is rekindling discussions about a more independent future.
  • In Africa: Though the queen was revered by many on the continent, her death reignited conversations about the brutality the monarchy meted out there.

But this time, the royal family does not seem to need public-relations advice. Prince William, Prince Harry, and their spouses appeared in a carefully managed walk outside Windsor Castle on Saturday. A day earlier, Charles stepped out of his vintage Rolls-Royce at Buckingham Palace to shake hands with well-wishers.

The Prince and Princess of Wales, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex paying their respects on Saturday to Queen Elizabeth outside Windsor Castle.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

“You could argue it helps her to be visible at these events,” Mr. Campbell said, “but in all honesty, the public are very focused on the royals and not the politicians.”

For Ms. Truss, experts agree, the success of her economic policy will matter far more in the long run than her performance over the next week.

“It’s almost impossible to predict the impact of the queen’s passing and the long period of mourning on Truss’s political fortunes, mainly because we’ve got little to compare it with,” said Timothy Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London.

The last leader in this position was Winston Churchill, who was in office when Elizabeth’s father, George VI, died in 1952 and played the role of mentor to the young queen in their weekly meetings. But as Professor Bale noted, “He was already firmly entrenched in the public mind as an iconic national hero.”

Based on the limited polling data available from that period, he said, the government’s approval ratings did not rise in the transition from George to Elizabeth.

“Those assuming there might be some kind of rally round the flag effect for Truss and the Tories might need to think again,” Professor Bale said.

Eshe Nelson contributed reporting

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