LONDON – They are two photos taken exactly seven weeks apart, capturing the traditional and ceremonial rites of the monarch meeting the British prime minister-in-waiting to ask them to form a new government.
They are also bookends.
Between the taking of the first and of the second, much elapsed, throwing a nation into mourning and then into an acute, turbulent economic crisis — tectonic shifts, one after the other, that many in the country had never experienced.
Queen Elizabeth II met incoming prime minister Liz Truss on Sept. 6. It was the last time the monarch was seen in an image by the public after her 70 years on the throne. Her reign had straddled two centuries, post-colonialism, Brexit and a pandemic.
For Truss, it was a new start, capping weeks of bruising battle for the Conservative party leadership with Rishi Sunak (more on him later) and handing her the keys to 10 Downing Street. Her predecessor, Boris Johnson, had been forced to resign amid a haze of ethics scandals.
The queen, using a walking cane after prolonged mobility issues, is seen smiling. Truss, too, from the side angle can be seen smiling as they shake hands. The queen died two days later.
For many, the meeting was probably the high point of Truss' premiership. After that, it sped downhill, crashed and burned in 45 days. Her libertarian economic policies caused convulsions in the markets and saw the pound crater to its lowest ebb against the dollar in nearly 40 years.
And now, this week, another photo: former Treasury chief Sunak, now prime minister, pictured Tuesday shaking hands with King Charles III. The same Sunak who said Truss' economic plan was a “fairy tale.” He may have gotten the last word with his predecessor, but he has huge obstacles ahead — one of Britain's most severe economic crises in modern history.
Britain is on its third leader this year, and the two most recent ones took the post without a direct mandate from the British people — they were elected leader of the Conservative Party and became prime minister automatically. There is a clamor among the opposition and beyond for a general election. By law, that doesn't have to be until 2024, and Sunak has said he won't call one — after the recent turmoil, the Tories face possible obliteration at the polls as it stands now.
Charles III is secure in his position and almost certain to outlast the government. His mother met 15 prime ministers in her 70 years on the throne; Charles is on his second after less than two months. But he is nevertheless the oldest person ever to ascend to the British throne.
In the middle of such chaos, who knows what the next photograph might show?