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Liz Truss implosion throws DUP plans into disarray

British PM cannot plausibly hold Europe’s feet to the fire over the NI protocol Bill in the next four weeks with her government an international laughing stock

The sudden collapse of the UK government’s remaining economic credibility is an event that will define British politics for years to come, with unavoidable effects on Ireland. The first impact is on protocol negotiations, although that might now seem an almost parochial concern.

Before last Friday’s Westminster mini-budget, the EU could assume that in Liz Truss, it was dealing with a prime minister who would be in office for two years with a solid parliamentary majority.

Today, she is just the latest British leader who could be gone in months. Why strike a deal with a prime minister who may not be around to keep — or be capable of keeping — her end of any bargain? Worse still from a British perspective, Truss might rush into a deal from a position of weakness.

In the Conservative leadership contest this summer, Truss was the choice of the party’s members, not of its MPs. Fewer than a fifth of MPs backed her in the first round. On becoming leader, she rewarded allies and sacked rivals, worsening internal divides.


Next month’s Conservative conference could be a bloodbath. The Commons vote on November’s full budget is always treated as a confidence motion and earlier legislation on the mini-budget could be regarded the same way. English council elections next May are an obvious opportunity to ditch a failing leader – a process that can be initiated by just 15 per cent of Tory MPs.

The DUP’s calculations on returning to Stormont have been thrown into disarray. The party requires Truss’s Bill to disapply the protocol to be a credible threat and negotiating tactic. The ideal time-frame for a deal had been seen as the end of October, before Stormont officially collapses.

Truss cannot plausibly hold Europe’s feet to the fire in the next four weeks with her government an international laughing stock. She will have greater difficulty ramming the Bill through Westminster as her authority wanes, especially if the Bill is portrayed as further weakening the UK’s economic reputation.

In Washington last week, Truss’s team dropped hints of a longer time-frame to resolve the protocol and restore devolution by next April, the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. Although there is frustration among other Stormont parties at stretching limbo out to placate the DUP, this is a more realistic deadline than October. As of this week, the first question it raises is whether Truss will still be prime minister by then.

Truss and her chancellor, Kwazi Kwarteng, give every appearance of planning to hang on and not reverse course. A battle-weary Tory party could feel it has little choice but to stand by them, unless MPs fancy an Edwin Poots-style humiliation or a rout in a general election.

That raises the vastly larger question of where a spell of Trussonomics might take the UK. There could be two years of it – the same duration as Margaret Thatcher’s only real experiment with monetarism.

Sir Charlie Bean, a former deputy governor of the Bank of England, has warned the spending cuts necessary to balance November’s budget alone are so significant, potentially up to £50 billion, they would require “a very fundamental rethinking of the boundaries of the state”.

He mentioned the future of the NHS; others have pointed to the system for funding devolution. Both have implications for political stability in Northern Ireland, with or without a functioning Stormont.

Few people have a national allegiance fluid enough to be swayed by a poor government or economy, yet in the North’s finely balanced demographics, their number could be suspected as decisive.

There will certainly be an increase in unionist anxiety and nationalist frustration. The Irish Government will have to decide how to approach this as it faces an electoral challenge from Sinn Féin.

Fading nationalist patience with the union will be a test for the Coalition’s shared island policy and the standard methods of the peace process, such as the Stormont talks Truss expects London and Dublin to oversee by next April.

The long-term impact of this week could be Labour in power for a generation, just as 13 years of New Labour followed when the Tories last lost their economic reputation.

This would be a mixed blessing for unionism. While a Labour government would greatly reduce the prospect of Scottish independence and calm nerves in Northern Ireland, Labour is instinctively sympathetic to Irish unity.

The party is considering intriguing constitutional reforms, including proportional representation and replacing the House of Lords with a chamber of the regions and nations. These could have profound political ramifications in Northern Ireland.

What Labour is not considering is reversing Brexit. But if it has years in power to mitigate Brexit, and build a healthier relationship with the EU, that would be as good an outcome for the whole of Ireland as is likely for the foreseeable future.