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LONDON — Liz Truss took office as British prime minister Tuesday when she followed outgoing leader Boris Johnson in meeting Queen Elizabeth II for a ceremonial transfer of power showcasing centuries of tradition, but also the uncertainty and gloom hanging over the country.
Johnson formally offered his resignation to the queen at Balmoral, her castle in Scotland, after delivering a farewell address outside his Downing Street office early Tuesday. Truss, who was announced as the leader of the ruling Conservative Party a day earlier, is now the 15th leader of the queen’s reign and the country’s third female prime minister. She was formally appointed during her own subsequent audience with the monarch.
This was the first time in the queen’s 70-year reign that the handover of power took place at her summer retreat, rather than at Buckingham Palace in London. The ceremony, known as “kissing hands,” was moved to Scotland to provide certainty about the schedule because of the 96-year-old’s mobility problems.
Before heading north, Johnson addressed the nation surrounded by his family and a crowd of supporters, defiantly defending the scandal-hit tenure that was ultimately cut short by a rebellion from his own lawmakers.
Full coverage: Latest news and updates on Queen Elizabeth II
He called on his party to unite behind Truss during the “tough time” facing the country of 67 million people, who will anxiously await her own speech for hints of how she plans to deal with soaring energy bills and a looming winter of recession and labor unrest.
With his trademark mix of bombast and bluster, Johnson likened himself both to a booster rocket whose mission has been fulfilled and a Roman leader, Cincinnatus, who famously left power and retired to a small farm — only to later return as a dictator.
The classical reference will have done little to discourage media speculation that the ousted leader may already be plotting a comeback, or those supporters who have expressed regret at his departure and scant enthusiasm for his successor.
“I am like one of those booster rockets that has fulfilled its function,’’ Johnson said. “I will now be gently re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down invisibly in some remote and obscure corner of the Pacific,’ he added. “Like Cincinnatus, I am returning to my plow.”
The country’s problems have festered for the past two months because Johnson had no authority to make major policy decisions after announcing his plan to step down.
The uncertainty has rattled money markets, driving the pound as low as $1.15, its weakest performance against the dollar since the 1980s.
Truss, 47, takes office a day after the Conservative Party’s 172,000 members elected her to lead their party.
A small-government conservative, she says her priority is cutting taxes and slashing regulations to fuel economic growth. Critics say that will further fuel inflation while failing to address the cost-of-living crisis.
After winning the race to succeed Johnson, Truss promised to “deliver” on the economy, the energy crisis and the country’s overstretched health care system, though she offered few specifics on her policies.
Truss is under pressure to spell out how she plans to help people and businesses struggling to pay energy bills that are due to rise next month to 3,500 pounds ($4,000) for the average household — triple the cost of a year ago.
The United Kingdom’s price spike, driven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, aftershocks of the Covid pandemic and Brexit, has propelled inflation above 10% for the first time in four decades.
The first task for Truss will be to appoint a Cabinet to tackle the government’s mountain of challenges.
She will also face multiple foreign policy crises, including the war in Ukraine and frosty post-Brexit relations with the European Union.
As foreign secretary, Truss was a firm supporter of Ukraine’s resistance to Russian invasion, and as prime minister she will continue the U.K.’s civilian and military support for Kyiv. She has said her first phone call with a world leader will be to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
She’s likely to have much cooler conversations with E.U. leaders, who have been annoyed by her uncompromising stance as foreign secretary in talks over trade rules for Northern Ireland, an unresolved Brexit issue that has soured relations between London and Brussels.
Elizabeth Kuhr is an NBC News producer based in London.
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Liz Truss takes office as U.K. prime minister after meeting with queen – NBC News