For the last two months, Britain’s Conservative Party has taken a holiday from reality. Its members have spent the time talking among themselves, choosing a new leader – and therefore the country’s next prime minister. Finally, the votes have been counted, and Liz Truss it is whom the Queen invited to form a new government (albeit winning by a slenderer margin than the polls predicted). What will she try to do? And what are her prospects of success?
The key point about Truss is that she is a serial convert – from youthful Liberal Democrat to right-wing Conservative, from republican to monarchist, and, most remarkably of all, from vocal Remainer in the 2016 Brexit referendum to ardent Brexiteer today. This may of course all be shameless opportunism. But there are signs in Truss of the zeal and confident faith of those who feel they have finally discovered the answers, in all their simple truth. On this reading, her aping of Margaret Thatcher’s poses (riding a tank, cuddling a calf, and so on) was not just pandering to the party faithful, but is a source of inspiration and reassurance for the new prime minister.
Who else, after all, than someone of preternatural confidence would want the job anyway? All the crucial public services – health, social care, criminal justice, policing, education – are on their knees after more than a decade of austerity. Trade and foreign investment have slumped since Brexit. Covid has emptied the exchequer. Britain’s growth and inflation prospects are worse than almost every other Western industrialised country. And now, dwarfing all else, households and businesses throughout the land are gazing at the coming tsunami of rising energy costs with no idea how they will survive it.
It will have been a comfort to Truss to spend the last two months in the reassuring embrace of the party faithful. To them, she has been able to advocate fracking and more fossil-fuel extraction from the North Sea as the answer to Russia’s gas blockade, while endorsing her audiences’ distaste for solar farms or wind turbines marring the landscape; and to anticipate cashing in on all those Brexit ‘opportunities’, whether by cutting Brussels red tape or sealing more trade deals with Commonwealth countries.
Now, in the next few days and weeks, comes Truss’s collision with reality. Indeed, it has already arrived, in the form of her late acceptance that she will have to do something – and something big and quick – about energy costs. Swallowing that camel, however, will soon seem a mere hors d’oeuvre as the pressure for more public spending mounts, civil unrest grows, and financial markets calculate the fiscal impact of Truss’s tax cuts. You would not want to be inside Truss’s head when the simplicity of ideology meets the awful complexity of the mess Britain has now descended into.
Like so many leaders under pressure at home, perhaps she will turn for relief to foreign affairs. Here at least, Truss can expound simple solutions. She has, after all, been Boris Johnson’s foreign secretary for the past year. In that role, like her boss, she cheerfully treated “abroad” as a theatre for embodying the role of Britain’s principled resolution – leading the Western world in standing up to Russia and China (the latter now clearly labelled an enemy).
On this, she can safely double down, promising more defence spending (though not immediately), more arms and reconstruction cash for Ukraine, and hinting at weapons for Taiwan. Similarly, she can press ahead with the pursuit of new trade deals. Johnson, for instance, had promised an imminent deal with India – though that may be problematic, given that British business has so publicly described what is currently on offer as inadequate. And a trade deal is one thing; an agreement that actually delivers benefit to Britain is another; while one that goes anywhere near compensating for the loss of the European market would be something else entirely.
The only new trade deal that might conceivably help in that regard would be one with the United States. But there, of course, the major stumbling block is Britain’s threat to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol. As foreign secretary, Truss herself sponsored the preparatory legislation – and as a born-again Brexiteer she has no option but to press ahead with this incendiary policy. Besides, picking fights with Brussels (like refusing to characterise France’s president as a friend) is always good for short-term headlines. Meanwhile, the longer-term consequences – a trade war with the European Union and potentially a return to violence in Northern Ireland – may not even be hers to deal with.
Certainly, European leaders will be in no hurry to respond to any provocations from Truss. They have enough problems of their own without facing a new Brexit drama any sooner than they have to. And they will be interested to see whether Truss accepts the invitation they will surely send her to attend the first meeting of the new European Political Community next month in Prague. If she refuses (she can legitimately claim a full diary) they will shrug their shoulders – and reflect that her occupancy of No 10 Downing Street may not be a long one.
The next general election is due in about two years – and the question must be whether Truss can survive even that long. Her win in the leadership contest was narrower than expected. And she presides over a disaffected and divided parliamentary party, made no more amenable by her choosing predominantly loyalists for her cabinet. After the inevitable big intervention on energy costs, it is hard to see her ideological soulmates tolerating any further deviation from the pure doctrine of low-tax, low-regulation, trickle-down, small-state economics. Besides, Truss herself seems every inch the true believer.
So, ideology looks set to collide with Britain’s dismal coming reality – with dire consequences for all but the wealthiest in society. The British people are typically long-suffering, preferring to grumble rather than rip up the pavé. But do not be altogether surprised if the Truss premiership fails to survive the coming winter.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.