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‘Are you ashamed?’: Embattled British PM faces ‘brutal’ radio call-in gantlet

The appearances revealed boiling anger across the country after the government announced a suite of unorthodox economic policies, including a tax cut for the highest earners.

LONDON — With the United Kingdom’s economy in turmoil and questions swirling about her future as its leader, Prime Minister Liz Truss might have been expected to try and reassure an anxious country Thursday.

Instead, she spent the morning fielding angry, mostly written, questions on a list of local radio phone-in shows — a full hour of being berated in different regional English accents.

“Are you ashamed of what you’ve done?” one listener on BBC Radio Kent asked. “What on earth were you thinking?” a second from the coastal town of Birchington-on-Sea asked. “Have you taken the keys to the country and crashed the economy?” another said.

Truss spoke to eight radio stations in all, spending between five and 10 minutes with each. It was part of what was supposed to be a regular round of media appearances before party conferences — it just happened to land in the midst of a national economic crisis.

The new prime minister did not answer many of the questions directly; instead, she gave the same semi-scripted answers, often punctuated with notable pauses and silences.

What the call-ins did reveal was the level of boiling anger and fear being felt across the United Kingdom caused by a suite of unorthodox economic policies announced Friday, including a tax cut for Britain’s highest earners and freezing people’s energy bills for two years.

But after a week when Truss has seemingly vanished from public view, she did not offer a hint of a U-turn or an apology.

“People like it when politicians are honest,” Sarah Julian, the presenter on BBC Radio Nottingham, said as she opened her segment. “Why don’t you just hold your hands up and say, ‘This is a mess, we got it wrong and we’re going to do something different?’”

“This is like a reverse Robin Hood,” she added, contrasting Truss’ tax cuts for the wealthy to Nottingham’s folkloric hero who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.

She says these “tough choices” were needed to spark growth in an otherwise sluggish economy. So far, these choices have sent the British pound crashing against the dollar, threatened to sink pension funds, drawn a rare rebuke from the International Monetary Fund, and forced the Bank of England to stage an emergency economic intervention to buy up government debt.

Reacting to the prospect of spiraling interest rates, mortgage lenders have taken hundreds of products off the market — amounting to some 40% of all mortgage offers — over the past week, according to the financial information company Moneyfacts.

“As prime minister, I have to do what I feel is right for the country,” Truss told one of the radio stations, BBC Radio Norfolk, based in eastern England. “We had to take action.”

Cost of living crisis
The Bank of England, with its imposing headquarters on London's Threadneedle Street, intervened to stop what it described as market instability.Yui Mok / PA via Getty Images

The government says that the markets have been spooked not because of its own economic policies, but because of general international volatility, including Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine. While other countries are experiencing some of the same pressures — to a far lesser extent — few economists agree that this was not a British self-inflicted wound.

Instead of backing down as many have demanded, Truss has doubled down.

“What we’re seeing around the world is great pressure on international markets because of Putin’s war in Ukraine,” she said of the Russian president’s invasion that partly explains the spiking energy prices in Europe. “And that’s why it is important that we as a government took decisive action.”

ITV News’ journalist Paul Brand, who used to do these types of regional interviews himself, tweeted that he couldn’t “remember a more brutal round” of media appearances for a prime minister. While Dan Hodges, a columnist for the right-wing Mail on Sunday, which is often sympathetic to the Conservative government, called Truss “robotic,” “lacking in empathy” and “an utter disaster.”

For one host, James Hanson on BBC Radio Bristol, it was too much.

“Prime minister, with respect, that was the same scripted answer you’ve given to every BBC local radio station this morning,” he said, interrupting one of Truss’ stock responses. “The Bank of England’s intervention yesterday was the fault of Vladimir Putin, was it?”