When she stood up in the House of Commons to announce her £150bn package to freeze energy bills, Liz Truss must have been under the impression that it was a moment that was likely to define her premiership.
If the announcement went well, skeptical Conservative MPs had suggested, it would give her time to continue governing. If not, her time at number 10 would have been up before it started.
But moments later that piece of Westminster wisdom was turned upside down when one of her senior ministers whispered in her ear that the Queen was gravely ill.
Suddenly, the address Truss had hoped would mark a bold, ambitious beginning was relegated to a footnote on a day that will be forever remembered at the end of a reign.
Now Truss has a new challenge that could make or break her premiership. As Prime Minister, her first and most urgent task was to reassure the nation in a televised speech shortly after Buckingham Palace confirmed that the Queen, who had provided stability and order to her people for so long, had passed away.
Her voice quivered a bit with emotion, she paid solemn tribute to the monarch, describing her as “the rock on which modern Britain was built” whose death was a “huge shock” to the country and the world. She said the Queen’s devotion to duty had been a “personal inspiration” to her and many other Britons, adding: “She was the spirit of Britain and that spirit will live on.”
In the coming days, Truss will have some constitutional responsibilities in representing the government at the palace, but her main job will be to ensure that the cogs of the state continue to turn smoothly and well-rehearsed plans for the moment are put into action. Any misstep will be dimly viewed by the many people who view the Queen as much more than an institution.
She will also have to play a leading role on the global stage as the world’s media turn their collective lens on the royal family and the country in general, pouring in tributes from the Commonwealth and world leaders, who will travel to the UK to pay their respects.
Many in Westminster believe that Truss — poised and presentable in a way her predecessor, Boris Johnson, was not, and well versed in diplomatic protocol since her time at the State Department — can handle the scale of the task.
This period, they whisper from behind their hands, will also give her much-needed public recognition as she is thrust into the limelight after focus groups suggested the painfully long Tory leadership had failed to register with large groups of voters this summer. .
However, the death of the Queen deprives the new Prime Minister of the opportunity to carry out her comprehensively informed ‘shock and awe’ campaign to stamp her authority over the government, starting with the energy package but planned to continue with a policy blitz, including tax cuts and slashing red tape in the coming weeks. That ambition has now been put on hold.
The House of Commons is expected to sit on Friday so MPs can pay their respects to the Queen, but after they are completed the house will be suspended while the 10 days of official mourning take place. Government affairs will continue during that time, but officials have emphasized that this will be limited to essential work and that there will be no announcements except in an emergency.
Truss’ first 100 days in office were mapped out by her team, but assistants will tear those plans apart and start over. The planned emergency budget outlining how it plans to navigate the country through the tumultuous economic waters ahead, as well as details on how the government will bring an NHS to its knees, will have to wait.
There is also a question mark on the agenda about foreign visits, to Dublin to try to reach an agreement on the thorny issue of the Northern Ireland protocol, and to New York for the UN General Assembly and – no 10 aides had hoped – conversations with Joe Biden.
Beyond that looms the party conference season, where the prospect of the usual boxing and partisanship fits uncomfortably with the idea of a nation still in mourning. Truss must view this as a moment of potential danger, as she is expected to judge the public vote.
Now that her plans for her first days in office have fallen so dramatically off course, expectations of her, both within the Tory party and the general public, will be higher than ever. But with the country still fearing the cost of living despite the government’s steps to help, the stakes for Liz Truss have never been higher.