London: Britain got its third female Prime Minister on Tuesday as Liz Truss, who in her innings as foreign and trade minister batted for stronger bilateral ties with India, took charge at 10 Downing Street after defeating Indian-origin ex-chancellor Rishi Sunak in the Conservative Party leadership race.
The 47-year-old senior Cabinet minister is faced with one of the toughest in-trays in the top job as a result of the spiralling cost-of-living crisis in the country, which would rival any of the issues faced by her women predecessors in office, Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May.
She must also contend with a fractious party that gave her a smaller margin of victory at 57 to 43 per cent than most recently elected Tory party leaders.
But on the India front, the former International Trade Secretary who signed off on the India-UK Enhanced Trade Partnership (ETP) for the Boris Johnson led government in May last year is expected to pursue the ongoing free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations towards a year-end deadline. She has described India as a “big, major opportunity” and believes the UK and India are “in a sweet spot of the trade dynamics that are building up.”
“We are looking at a comprehensive trade agreement that covers everything, from financial services to legal services to digital and data, as well as goods and agriculture. We think there is strong possibility for us to get an early agreement, where we lower tariffs on both sides and start to see more goods flowing between our two countries,” she said soon after signing the ETP.
On her promotion as Foreign Secretary, Truss handed over the baton at the Department for International Trade (DIT) to Anne Marie-Trevelyan, who is widely expected to continue in her role as International Trade Secretary and take forward the UK-India FTA talks.
More recently on the campaign trail, Truss reaffirmed that she remains “very, very committed” to strengthen bilateral ties at a hustings event of the party’s Conservative Friends of India (CFIN) diaspora group. She also committed herself to getting the India-UK FTA done, preferably by Diwali – the deadline set by predecessor Boris Johnson – but “definitely by the end of the year.”
She has repeatedly flagged enhanced defence and security cooperation with the Indo-Pacific region in order to meet her “network of liberty” goals as a counter-balance to the aggression of Russia and China and also promised to ensure the UK’s visa regime continues to attract the “best and brightest” from India.
As foreign secretary, she has been at the forefront of the UK’s response to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, imposing tough sanctions and cracking down on Russian assets in the UK. It is this crisis that marks what has been described as one of the worst in-trays that any new British Prime Minister has faced, given the spiralling energy costs that have triggered a cost-of-living crisis in the UK largely as a result of the ongoing conflict in Europe.
“Within one week I will make sure there is an announcement on how we are going to deal with the issue of energy bills, and of long-term supply, to put this country on the right footing for winter,” she said in a recent interview.
Some tough measures are expected within days, with analysts expecting her to adopt some of rival Rishi Sunak’s plans of help targeted at the most vulnerable households.
However, it is her pledge to reverse the former Chancellor’s tax hike that would make it unlikely for the two finalists to work together in a new Cabinet. While Sunak maintained that tax cuts are not the answer to get a grip on the country’s soaring inflation, Truss stood firm on her low tax pledge throughout the campaign – a move that clearly paid off with the historically low tax favouring Conservative Party base.
While UK-born Sunak relied on his personal immigrant story and Indian heritage in a slick campaign run, Truss repeatedly admitted that she may not be the slickest of candidates but had a clear vision of how to “get the job done”.
Ironically, both candidates harked back to Tory grandee Margaret Thatcher as their inspiration. However, while Sunak belonged firmly to one end of the party wing as a Brexiteer, Truss was someone who had voted for the UK to remain in the European Union (EU). She was also often pulled up about her membership and campaign for the Liberal Democrats as a young Oxford University student.
However, in the end the member of Parliament for South West Norfolk went on to win over the Tory membership base, which had her as a clear frontrunner since she was elected as a finalist by her party colleagues.
Born in Oxford to a maths professor father and nurse and teacher mother, Truss grew up and lived in different parts of the UK, including Paisley in Scotland and Leeds, Kidderminster and London in England. Truss is married to accountant Hugh O’Leary with two teenage daughters.
She now has the tough task of governing the different parts of the United Kingdom and reigning in divisions within her own party.