Baptism of fire as UK PM grapples with death of Queen Elizabeth II


For decades, every British Prime Minister has prepared to navigate the important national issues surrounding the possible demise of Queen Elizabeth II. Liz Truss barely had 48 hours.

For the first time in its long history, Britain acquired a new prime minister and monarch in the same week with the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday.

Boris Johnson’s Tory successor, Truss, was only appointed Prime Minister by the Queen on Tuesday, in an event that yielded the monarch’s last official photograph.

“I have personally greatly appreciated his sage advice,” before and since becoming prime minister, Truss told a hushed House of Commons on Friday.

“She generously shared with me her profound experience of government, even in these last days.”

“Everyone who met her will remember that moment,” the new prime minister said. “They will talk about it all their life.”

Just hours before the Queen died, Truss was in Parliament to unveil a huge emergency relief package to limit soaring energy prices.

The debate was cut short after she and opposition leaders quietly received notes informing them that the Queen’s health had seriously deteriorated.

Around four hours later, Truss was notified of her death by Buckingham Palace, according to Downing Street – two hours before the nation and the world were informed.

Churchill to now

Truss was the Queen’s 15th Prime Minister during a 70-year reign which opened with warlord Winston Churchill in Downing Street.

The Queen was just 25 when she succeeded her father in 1952. By her own admission, Elizabeth relied on Churchill to help her fulfill the constitutional duties incumbent on the monarch.

At the time – in the aftermath of the Second World War and as the Cold War emerged – Churchill told Parliament: ‘She ascends the throne at a time when a tormented humanity stands uncomfortably between a global catastrophe and a golden age.”

By the end of the reign, Prime Ministers had come to rely in turn on the Queen’s decades of experience and sotto voce advice in their weekly and very private audiences.

It’s an opportunity denied to Truss as she begins under a new king, Charles III, who in his decades as heir often intervened in political matters, usually in controversial ways.

Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, praised Elizabeth as “extremely knowledgeable”.

“She was a very discerning judge of people and was often able to give these little pen and ink portraits, if you will, of people she knew, people she had met,” May told BBC radio on Friday.

“And sometimes it wasn’t just about the individual, but actually kind of the story of that individual, their experiences of particular countries, particular issues,” she said.

“Always a wise word”

While the Queen has felt closest to Churchill among her many prime ministers, declassified records show she was furious at Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa.

And his constitutional relationship with Johnson was strained. He was brought down by a revolt among Conservative Party MPs after a series of scandals which at one point embroiled the monarch herself.

In September 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that Johnson unlawfully suspended parliament in a bid to break the legal deadlock over Brexit.

Indeed, he had lied to the Queen, whose blessing was required for the ill-fated prorogation.

But on another occasion, after the shocking death of Princess Diana in 1997, the monarchy itself owed credit to a quick-witted prime minister.

Tony Blair stepped into the breach when the Queen was under pressure from a furious public to give fuller recognition to Diana’s death.

Calling Diana the ‘people’s princess’, Blair helped channel the national mood and advised the palace to shed constitutional pieties that had seen the Queen fall out of favor with public sentiment of shock.

But Blair and his Labor successor Gordon Brown also paid tribute on Thursday to the Queen’s expertise and sense of duty, as did Tory John Major, who followed Thatcher to Downing Street.

“She was always extraordinarily knowledgeable,” Major said.

“And on foreign affairs, she would always say if there was a difficulty from a foreign leader, ‘Well, I met him many years ago’ or ‘I knew his father’.

“There was always a wise word to be had. And those meetings with the Queen have always been the best part of a Prime Minister’s week.

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