Liz Truss remains on track to become the next UK prime minister with Conservative Party members unimpressed as much by Rishi Sunak’s slick style as the huge tax burden he has imposed on the country. Truss has promised policies to reverse that, boost growth and fight for Ukraine — all wrapped up in a Thatcherite pussy-bow blouse.
The in-tray facing the new prime minister will contain the same issue as it has for so many of her predecessors: the UK’s relationship with the European Union. Will the woman nicknamed the human hand grenade blow up the United Kingdom to preserve the integrity of European Union sausages? If she won’t, then a hard Brexit beckons for the woman who voted Remain.
Truss will find some breathing space by the electorate. Brexit has dropped down the priority list now that a pandemic and a war have intervened. Voters care more about competence and a return to growth — as we can see from the results of the recent disastrous byelection losses for the Conservatives. Both North Shropshire and Tiverton and Honiton were in the top third most pro-Leave seats in the country, but both elected candidates from the most pro-Remain of parties, the Liberal Democrats, to bloody the government’s nose. This is even more astonishing given voters didn’t just lazily choose “the other guys” — the Lib Dems weren’t even in second place in the previous election. The electorate wants the government to get over Brexit and get a grip.
Truss will be afforded no such space by her own party. She happily embraced the support of heavyweight ERG members such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker in a bid to burnish her Brexiteer credentials with the Tory party faithful. If she ditches them upon taking office on September 5th, then her premiership will be over before it has begun. She will need to play to the ERG gallery in the short term. That means ensuring passage of the Northern Ireland protocol Bill and standing up to Europe in the almost-inevitable trade war that will ensue. She will revel in the Thatcherite glow of giving Brussels a good handbagging. But Truss is no ideologue. She is a pragmatist who uses ideology as a shorthand to gain power. This is a Conservative who gleefully called for abolishing the monarchy at the Liberal Democrat conference as a teenager.
Truss will quietly welcome the external forces that try to square the constitutional circle. The Northern Ireland protocol Bill will be amended in the Lords. Legal challenges from the EU will tie up and bog down any trade war. The EU itself will struggle to hold a hard line while it battles the stagflationary forces of Russia’s energy embargo. Truss will not want to hurt the fragile UK economy even if she does rather like the Instagram image of herself in a tank, Falklands-style. This Iron Lady is for turning.
The die is cast by those who came before her. The union of the United Kingdom has already been compromised. Dominic Cummings — Boris Johnson’s erstwhile adviser — deliberately engineered the Irish Border question in order to complete the Brexit process. He believed the British public must be forced to choose between the single market of the European Union and the internal market of the UK. Only then, he could argue, would the UK really have “taken back control”. It’s not enough to vote to leave — for him, the argument must be settled by exposing what he believes it means to be part of the EU.
To do that, he devised a provocation. The “frontstop” for Northern Ireland currently leaves it both inside and outside the EU, with a clock ticking down to a deadline for when this Schrödinger’s position must be resolved. This leaves Brexit negotiations like an open wound, one that can be patched up but never heals.
Truss doesn’t have the stomach for such surgery even as the wound persists. She knows that the constitutional question can only be solved by a series of blow-ups and an eventual compromise
If the EU launches legal threats, stations customs officers at the border or anything else to ensure the integrity of its single market, it could be portrayed as an overweening aggressor subordinating its member state to its own ambitions. Meanwhile, the UK would simply be helping out its neighbour under the terms of a century-old settlement that existed before the EU even came into being. EU amputation versus British palliative care: that’s how Cummings sacrificed Northern Ireland.
Truss doesn’t have the stomach for such surgery even as the wound persists. She knows that the constitutional question can only be solved by a series of blow-ups and an eventual compromise. The final settlement of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the EU will take years, if not decades, to crystallise. By which point the issue will have fallen into the in-tray of a subsequent prime minister. Under Truss, then, we can expect her to bark Brexiteer, but there will be no bite.
Helen Thomas is chief executive of Blonde Money, an independent London-based consultancy firm