The battle to keep Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia reactor safe. Kiribati suspends its top judges. Deadly earthquake strikes Sichuan. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Thatcher 2.0: Liz Truss says Britain ‘can ride out the storm’

Incoming British prime minister Liz Truss after becoming the Conservative Party’s new leader on September 5.
Incoming British prime minister Liz Truss after becoming the Conservative Party’s new leader on September 5.
Credit: Wiktor Szymanowicz / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Great power rivalry 

Ukraine: A team of United Nations experts that inspected the massive Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine called this week for the creation of a demilitarised zone around the complex to prevent a potential Chernobyl-like disaster.

“We are playing with fire, and something very, very catastrophic could take place,” Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director general of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) told the UN Security Council on Tuesday.

The plant, the largest in Europe, has been controlled by Russian forces since March but is being operated by Ukrainian technicians. Both sides have denied responsibility for the shelling that has already damaged parts of the complex. 

A report by the IAEA called for Russian troops to withdraw from the plant and for Ukraine to commit not to move forces in. It said the plant was at risk of a military attack but was also being operated by a limited number of staff who were working under intense pressure. “This is not sustainable and could lead to increased human error with implications for nuclear safety,” it said.

Ukraine said this week it had gained ground during counteroffensives in southern and eastern Ukraine, including pushing Russian forces out of two southern villages. 

A declassified United States intelligence report said Russia was facing a shortage of weapons and had bought millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea – a purchase that would breach international sanctions. Russia has also bought arms from Iran.

The US president, Joe Biden, refused this week to designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, saying such a move could lead to the end of any co-operation with Moscow on the delivery of aid to Ukraine and on efforts to transport grain from blockaded Ukrainian ports. Democrats and Republicans, including the house speaker, Nancy Pelosi, have urged Biden to add Russia to its list of such states. Four countries are currently on the list: Iran, Syria, North Korea and Cuba.

The neighbourhood 

Kiribati: The government in Kiribati suspended three of the nation’s top judges this week after they blocked a bid to deport an Australian judge, David Lambourne, who is married to the opposition leader, Tessie Lambourne.

The suspension has left the Pacific nation without a high-level court and escalated the battle between the government and the judiciary.

Kiribati’s Court of Appeal, which is currently made up of three retired New Zealand judges, last month ruled that the government’s attempt to deport Lambourne was unconstitutional. 

Lambourne, a long-term resident of Kiribati who was appointed to its High Court in 2018, was deemed a “security risk” by the government, though the details are unclear. He was suspended as a judge in May for unexplained misconduct allegations.

The Court of Appeal ruled that the deportation order was invalid, prompting the office of the president, Taneti Maamau, to claim that its three members were autocratic, ignorant and guilty of a “judicial coup”. Earlier this year, Kiribati’s chief justice, Bill Hastings, was also suspended by the government as he was due to hear a challenge against Lambourne’s suspension.

A Queensland Supreme Court judge, Glenn Martin, president of the Australian Judicial Officers Association, said this week that the suspension of Kiribati’s senior judges was “misguided and inconsistent with the rule of law”. “There is now no active judiciary in Kiribati,” he said in a statement.

Democracy in retreat 

China: A deadly 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck China’s Sichuan province this week

and raised further questions about the country’s strict approach to Covid-19 after residents attempting to flee to safety were reportedly forced to stay home due to a lockdown. 

The quake hit just hours after Chinese authorities extended a controversial lockdown that has affected tens of millions of people in at least 68 cities, including Chengdu and Shenzhen. The lockdown prompted panic buying amid fears that it could be repeatedly extended, as occurred earlier this year in Shanghai. Chengdu, which has 21 million residents and is the capital of Sichuan, had its lockdown extended last Sunday after 140 coronavirus cases were reported.

The earthquake, whose epicentre was in Luding county, about 200 kilometres from Chengdu, killed at least 66 people and damaged more than 13,000 homes. The tremors caused landslides and blocked highways and telecommunications across the region, prompting the evacuation of about 50,000 people. 

Some locked-down residents took shelter in courtyards rather than leave their apartment compounds, others claimed that building managers prevented them from leaving their homes. Health authorities in Chengdu later confirmed that Covid-19 rules can be set aside in times of natural disaster. An earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 is believed to have killed almost 90,000 people.

Lockdowns across China have taken a heavy toll on the economy but are part of President Xi Jinping’s commitment to a “zero Covid” policy. Xi is expected to be given an unprecedented third term at the Chinese Communist Party’s congress next month.

Spotlight: Liz Truss in, Boris Johnson out

Britain: On Tuesday, Liz Truss was sworn in as Britain’s fourth prime minister in six years, to the nation’s disappointment. 

Truss was elected leader of the Conservative Party after Boris Johnson stepped down following a series of scandals, including attending alcohol-fuelled gatherings during Covid-19 lockdowns and then denying that he attended.

But her party, like her nation, is deeply divided. Truss, a 47-year-old former accountant, defeated former chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak in a vote of 172,000 party members, but she received just 50 votes in a first-round ballot in July of her party’s 358 MPs. She takes office as her country faces double-digit inflation, soaring energy prices, workforce shortages, strikes and lingering uncertainties about Brexit. A poll by YouGov this week found 50 per cent of Britons were disappointed that she is prime minister (including 33 per cent who were “very disappointed”), compared with 22 per cent who were pleased. Just 14 per cent of Britons thought she would be an improvement on Johnson, who was doing a bad job according to 68 per cent of Britons.

Truss has presented herself as a Thatcherite free marketeer and has pledged to cut taxes and cap energy prices, despite concerns these measures will further fuel inflation and add to the country’s mounting debt. 

“Together we can ride out the storm,” she declared in her first address as prime minister on Tuesday. 

Truss’s cabinet largely included loyalists, and – for the first time in British history – none of the country’s four most senior politicians are white men.

In his departing speech, Johnson promised loyalty to Truss and claimed he would now avoid the political spotlight. “Like Cincinnatus I am returning to my plough,” he said. Classicists were quick to point out that the Roman statesman was later recalled from his farm to serve another term.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2022 as "Thatcher 2.0: Liz Truss says Britain ‘can ride out the storm’".

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