Statue of Winston Churchill with a row of union flags in the background
Every prime minister is encircled by threats that could bring them down (photo by Kristina Gadeikyte on Unsplash)

“The office of prime minister”, said the Edwardian premier H.H. Asquith, “is what the incumbent chooses to make of it”, a sentiment which may reassure Liz Truss as she takes up the role.

It is true that there are few formal constitutional constraints on British prime ministers compared to, for example, US Presidents, who cannot rely upon a parliamentary majority and can find their measures struck down by a contentious Supreme Court. But every PM is encircled by a web of threats which retain potential impact sufficient to bring them down under the right circumstances.

Those forces have brought down five of our last seven national leaders without a general election. New prime ministers usually start with more room for manoeuvre than their predecessor; but Prime Minister Truss has stepped into a tighter spot than most of her predecessors and will need more skill and luck than them.

Truss has made herself secure from rivals with a Cabinet made up of loyal supporters from the leadership campaign. Only amongst the lower ranks of ministers have Rishi Sunak’s supporters found recognition by the new PM. Around the Cabinet table, for now at least, there will be little dissent.

Dr. Matt Cole - Research Fellow, University of Birmingham

Firstly, the Cabinet. It was resignations and pressure from the very colleagues they had appointed which sent Boris Johnson, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher to step outside No 10 to offer their resignations. Here, at the moment, Truss has made herself secure from rivals with a Cabinet made up of loyal supporters from the leadership campaign. Only amongst the lower ranks of ministers have Rishi Sunak’s supporters found recognition by the new PM. Around the Cabinet table, for now at least, there will be little dissent.

Second, Parliament. There is a trade-off between accommodating rivals and dissenters in the cabinet and easing tension amongst the PM’s supporters in the Commons. That’s why more than half of Thatcher’s first cabinet was made up of supporters of Edward Heath, the predecessor she had displaced, and Blair’s team embraced John Prescott and Gordon Brown. 200 of her MPs have never publicly endorsed her, and at her first PMQs many were asking critically about the support she will offer businesses in the energy crisis. It took only a minority of MPs voting for the removal of Thatcher and Johnson to set off the chain reaction leading to their departures, and Truss needs to work on her relationship with the 1922 committee.

Last comes opposition in various forms: Labour, the Liberal Democrat and the SNP have subdued internal divisions for now at least; the media turned on Johnson and its jury is out on Truss; and action by trade unions is likely to be a major challenge for Truss in her first few months. A range of public figures from Martin Lewis and Marcus Rashford to Ant and Dec and Joe Lycett have made it respectable to rebuke the government on mainstream platforms.

The last judgement of course will go to the voters. Truss is free of any immediate electoral tests, and this gives her a window to rebuild a relationship with those who lost trust in the government under Johnson. She has been unwilling, however, to distance herself from him – partly because of his continued popularity amongst the party members to whom she was appealing until recently – and perceived failure to tackle the coming economic challenges could make the severe reaction against ‘Partygate’ look like a knee-jerk conniption. The mandate of 80,000 party members – fewer than any Conservative Leader in a party-wide election – is no substitute for the support of the electorate.

Asquith was forced out of office by Lloyd George in 1916, when the former’s cerebral but ponderous approach was not effective in the depths of total war. The fate of prime ministers is determined not by whether they have the right talents, but whether they have the talents to match the challenges of their time. Whether Liz Truss’s skill set is equal to these unenviable circumstances remains to be seen.