From Mourning to Crises: U.K. Prime Minister Pivots to Mounting Woes

The flowers have been cleared. Union Jacks no longer fly at half mast. Advertisements have replaced Queen Elizabeth II’s image on bus shelters. A day after burying their revered monarch, Britons returned to normal life on Tuesday to confront a flood of pressing issues they had put aside for 10 days of mourning.

Hours after the funeral ended, Prime Minister Liz Truss left for New York, where she is holding a round of diplomatic meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, which could set the tone for Britain’s relationship with the US and the EU while she is in office.

At home, her government will roll out major initiatives this week to confront the many economic and social problems facing Britain: skyrocketing energy costs; rising inflation; pressure on public services, particularly the National Health Service; higher interest rates; and specter of a recession.

While the Queen’s death on September 8 catapulted Ms Truss to global prominence and gave her a speaking role in front of hundreds of world leaders at the funeral in Westminster Abbey, it also disrupted her plan to get underway, with Parliament suspended days later. she moved into Downing Street.

On Wednesday, Mrs Truss is scheduled to meet with President Biden and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. On Tuesday, she met French President Emmanuel Macron, whom she refused to characterize as friend or foe during her recent campaign to lead the Conservative Party.

On her way to New York, Ms Truss told reporters that Britain no longer expected to negotiate a trade deal with the US in the “short to medium term.” On one level, it was simply an admission of what has long been clear. But analysts said it was also designed to remove the influence the Biden administration has in pushing Britain to resolve a dispute with the European Union over trade in Northern Ireland.

With a transatlantic trade deal no longer on the table, these analysts said, Ms Truss could take a tougher line in negotiations with Brussels over post-Brexit trading arrangements in the North. Those talks have been deadlocked, and Britain has introduced legislation that could scrap the current rules it negotiated and agreed, raising fears that tensions could erupt into a full-blown trade war.

“The aim was to effectively neutralize US influence on the issue of the protocol,” said Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, referring to the legal construct governing trade in Northern Ireland. “There is less reason for her not to take a hard line with the EU”

Ms Truss has argued that Brussels needs to accept major changes to the protocol to fix trade disruptions and political paralysis that resulted from its deal on Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK but shares an open border with neighboring Ireland, a member of the European Union.

To keep the border open, Britain had accepted controls on goods flowing from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland. But this arrangement alienated the biggest pro-unionist party in the north, which has refused to take part in a power-sharing government until Britain has gone through it. The legislation, which Mrs Truss introduced as foreign secretary, would see Britain scrap the rules unilaterally.

The White House has repeatedly warned Britain not to take steps that would jeopardize the Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Mr. Biden, who makes much of his Irish heritage, raised it in his first call with Mrs Truss after she became prime minister.

The two leaders discussed “the importance of reaching a negotiated agreement with the European Union on the Northern Ireland Protocol,” the White House said in a readout of the conversation. In its reading of the same phone call, Downing Street clearly did not mention the resolution of the dispute with Brussels.

The problem, Mr Rahman said, is that the gaps between Britain and the EU are so wide that they may elude a solution. Mrs Truss owes her latest victory in the Tory leadership contest in part to the support of hard Brexiters in her party who do not want a deal with Brussels. “That’s where the political reality can bite,” he said. “There may simply not be a landing zone, given the goals the government is seeking.”

Simon Fraser, a former top official at Britain’s Foreign Office, said Ms Truss should use her meetings in New York to “defuse the mood with the EU and get on with Macron. The funeral may have created a mechanism for this.”

On Thursday, the new health secretary, Thérèse Coffey, will tackle another threat: increasing pressure on Britain’s overstretched National Health Service, which is struggling to cope with a large backlog of healthcare from the pandemic.

But the big domestic push is expected to come on Friday, when the new finance minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, outlines his plan to revive economic growth and explains how he can fund his promises to protect consumers and businesses from high energy costs while cutting taxes.

Fears that fiscal discipline will be sacrificed have put pressure on the pound, which is trading at its lowest levels against the dollar since 1985. That threatens to push up the price of imported goods again, undermining the Bank of England’s efforts to contain it. inflation as it prepares for another likely rate hike on Thursday.

Some details of the government’s agenda will also spark protests, particularly a plan to lift the cap on bankers’ bonuses, which critics see as insensitive at a time when many Britons are facing financial difficulties.

Ending a moratorium on hydraulic fracking, another of Ms Truss’ commitments, is sure to be contentious, although the government says it will only allow shale gas to be extracted if local communities consent.

And a decision by Mr Kwarteng to remove a highly respected senior Treasury official, Tom Scholar, also alarmed some skeptics who fear the new government may not be willing to listen to advice.

On Tuesday, Mrs Truss defended her economic plans, telling the BBC she was willing to take “difficult” decisions, such as lifting the cap on bankers’ bonuses, to boost economic growth. Her plans to reduce energy bills would reduce inflation, she added.

Despite the disruptions, the solemn events of the past 10 days have given Ms Truss the opportunity to present herself to the public in a non-partisan way, meet more foreign leaders and give her team the chance to refine some flagship policies.

“It’s given them a little more time to fill in the details and figure things out,” said Jill Rutter, a former civil servant and senior fellow at the Institute for Government, a London-based research group. “The question is whether they have been able to use the time when they were not forced into the television studios.” Now Ms Rutter said: “The first verdict on her premiership will come in the next few days.”