The Wider View

Sep 29, 2022

Truss Trouble

There are two schools of thought when it comes to new British Prime Minister Liz Truss: That she’s an ideologue and that’s she a pragmatist. If she means what she says then UK-EU relations are in for a very bumpy ride.

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Britain's Prime Minister Liz Truss walks outside Downing Street in London, Britain, September 23, 2022.
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The death of Queen Elizabeth II after more than 70 years on the throne, just two days after she had appointed Liz Truss to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister, means that the United Kingdom is facing a period of profound political and constitutional uncertainty at a time of sharp economic recession and soaring inflation caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Domestic economic policy will be the top priority for the new government, in order to tackle a potentially devastating cost-of-living crisis at home. The tax-cutting "mini-budget" announced on September 23 that spooked financial markets and sent the pound downward, does not bode well in this regard. But foreign policy, including forging stable post-Brexit relations with the European Union and its member states, coping with the fall out of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and taking sides in an increasingly hostile relationship between the United States and China, also requires urgent attention.

Truss was elected by the ageing membership of her own Conservative Party in a fractious campaign against Rishi Sunak, former chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister) under Boris Johnson. With only 80 percent of eligible voters sending in their ballot papers, she failed to win an outright majority of party members and won the support of fewer fellow parliamentarians than Sunak. But she remained overtly loyal to Johnson, and clearly won over the pro-Brexit, English nationalist grassroots members of the party. The more centrist Sunak, meanwhile, was blamed for precipitating Johnson’s demise by resigning from his government. Truss’ choice of ministers in her cabinet clearly reflects her loyalty to the pro-Brexit right wing of the party. Her power base is narrow.

Although he had “delivered Brexit,” Johnson came to be seen as untrustworthy, unreliable, and erratic by his own back-benchers, who decided that he had become an electoral liability, rather than the asset he had been when he won them a big parliamentary majority against the Labour Party in December 2019. Truss faces an uphill struggle to reunite a party already deeply divided by Brexit, and now split by differences over tax cutting to boost demand at a time of rapid inflation. The best she can expect will be a brief honeymoon after the period of national mourning for the queen, before civil war resumes.

Talking in Slogans

There are two schools of thought about the politics of the new prime minister. She comes to the top job after an unremarkable year as foreign secretary under Johnson, and a stint as international trade minister under his predecessor, Theresa May. She is a dull speaker (a complete contrast to the verbose and flamboyant Johnson) who talks in slogans, rather than sentences. One school suggests that she is a profoundly ideological politician, nationalist by inclination, and committed in word and deed to a deregulated, free-market driven economy, with low taxation and minimal government regulation. The other view is that she is really a pragmatist who was once a member of the Liberal Democrats, and who voted to remain in the EU in the Brexit referendum, before becoming an arch-Brexiteer. They see her as a populist rather than an ideologue, ready to adapt her policies to whatever is likely to be most appealing to her electorate.

In her election campaign to succeed Johnson, Truss appealed unashamedly to the pro-Brexit right wing of the Tory party. She presented herself as a true follower of Margaret Thatcher, still the undisputed heroine of the Conservative grassroots. She promised to cut taxes rather than increase spending to boost growth, while rejecting demands by the opposition Labour Party for windfall taxes on energy companies to finance protection for low income-earners from soaring energy prices. And she promised deregulation to “reap the benefits of Brexit.”

On foreign policy she appeared equally hardline. She promised that she would pursue the hard version of Brexit espoused by Johnson, distancing her government from its former partners in the EU, blaming them for enforcing red tape, and scrapping any EU regulations that kept the UK close to the EU single market. She seems determined to ditch the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, which allows Northern Ireland, which politically is part of the UK, to keep a foothold in the EU single market as well as the UK market, and therefore ensures there need be no physical land border across the island of Ireland—an essential part of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

Those who see Truss as a pragmatist, however, point to the fact that she has a track record of changing her mind. Although a Remainer in the Brexit referendum, she abandoned that position once the UK had voted in favor of leaving the EU. She is now a hero of the Brexiteers. As for her promise to cut taxes, and initial refusal to consider any form of subsidy to protect consumers from soaring gas and electricity prices, she abandoned that idea as soon as she became prime minister, announcing a vast £150-billion package to cap energy bills and protect both consumers and small businesses from the cost-of-living crisis.

Sticking with Ukraine

On one essential aspect of foreign policy, support for Ukraine in resisting the ongoing Russian invasion, she is very unlikely to change tack. If anything, she has gone further than Johnson in calling for total Ukrainian victory and a complete Russian withdrawal to pre-2014 borders, including a retreat from Crimea. She is likely to maintain that position because it is popular with voters inside and outside her own party, and in spite of the fact that popular support may wane as gas prices soar in mid-winter.

She has taken a hard line on China, too, proposing to rewrite the 105-page “Integrated Review of Defence, Diplomacy and Development”—the basis of British foreign and security policy—barely a year after it was published, in order to label China alongside Russia as a “growing malign influence” and a direct threat to national security.

It was a policy platform that was red in tooth and claw, with a firm commitment to greatly boosted defense spending—to increase from its current 2.1 percent of gross domestic product, to 2.7 percent by 2026 and 3 percent by 2030.

The period of mourning for Queen Elizabeth has brought the policymaking process to a virtual standstill. All that we have as an indicator of Truss foreign policy plans comes from what she said as foreign secretary before becoming prime minister, and her choice of the leading ministers in her government.

In Search of Global Britain

The most thorough presentation of her foreign policy thinking was delivered in a speech to Chatham House, the London-based think tank, in December 2021.

“After almost 50 years in the EU, once again, all the levers of international policy are in our hands,” she said, citing the tools of diplomacy, development assistance, trade, and security. “We are rebuilding our muscle to fulfil the promise of global Britain.” The problem is that “global Britain” is a vague and fluid concept.

The same speech makes virtually no mention of repairing ties with the EU post-Brexit, stressing instead the need to forge new trade and investment ties with like-minded “free enterprise democracies” around the world, with a view to avoiding “strategic dependency” on both Russia and China.

Bronwen Maddox, director of Chatham House, sees a temptation in Truss that could be unsettling for traditional UK partners. “At the heart of her political identity is a notion … of being a disrupter, which injects a deliberate unpredictability into her approach towards a world in extreme flux,” she says. “If she indulges this without good judgment, she could do real damage to Britain’s prospects and standing in the world.”

The Northern Ireland Test

The first real test of Truss’s pragmatism will come with the fate of the Northern Ireland protocol. It is seen in Brussels as an essential part of the international treaty agreed by Johnson to enable Brexit to happen without creating an internal border in Ireland. But both Johnson and Truss have backed the unionist parties in Northern Ireland in seeking to scrap it, because it creates border checks between the rest of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland instead.

A majority of the elected members of the Northern Ireland assembly is in favor of keeping the protocol. So is US President Joe Biden in Washington, who sees it as an essential guarantee of the peace process. Biden’s fellow Democrats have made it very clear that a new US-UK trade agreement will not be forthcoming if the protocol is unilaterally scrapped.

The question is whether Liz Truss is open to compromise, to head off open warfare with Brussels. The last thing she needs is a trade war with the EU in the present economic climate. But she has appointed two particularly hardline Brexiteers as ministers in charge of the Northern Ireland office: Christopher Heaton-Harris as Secretary of State, and Steven Baker as Minister of State. They are unlikely to favor any compromise with the EU that would alienate the unionist parties.

Bronwen Maddox argues that forging closer ties with the EU should be the starting point of a successful Truss foreign policy. It should be based on a common policy toward Ukraine and toward the looming energy crisis. An agreement on adapting rather than scrapping the protocol would also win enthusiastic US backing.

So, the jury is out. Will the new British prime minister reject any compromise in order to keep faith with her party’s most passionate Brexiteers as well as the hardline Democratic Unionist Party in Belfast, and unilaterally scrap the protocol? Or will she opt for a deal to demonstrate her willingness, now she is sitting in 10 Downing Street, to put pragmatism and diplomacy above ideology? If she means what she says, then UK-EU relations are in for a very bumpy ride.

Quentin Peel is Associate Fellow with the Europe Program at Chatham House in London.