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LONDON — Liz Truss can’t afford to be soft on Brussels.
The British foreign secretary — a darling of her party’s grassroots — is now in charge of overseeing the U.K.’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU in all its dimensions: negotiating solutions to the Northern Ireland trade row; overseeing the implementation of the Brexit deals; and forging closer bilateral ties with European capitals.
Some observers see a willingness to compromise from Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the appointment, which followed the surprise resignation of David Frost this weekend. Frost, who has long served as Johnson’s right-hand man on Brexit, quit following a sharp change of tack from the U.K. on its position in Northern Ireland protocol talks.
But with increasingly rebellious Conservative backbenchers threatening to challenge the embattled U.K. prime minister, any moves by Truss on Brexit will be very closely watched — especially by the Euroskeptics.
A former Remainer, Truss burnished her Brexit credentials by promoting free trade and the “Global Britain” message as international trade secretary until earlier this year. She is regarded as a pragmatic minister who has been willing to make concessions to get trade deals over the line, boosting her popularity among Tory MPs and members alike.
With the Brexit brief, however, she might find herself between a rock and a hard place: the wish of a large number of Conservative MPs for a tough approach to the Northern Ireland protocol dispute on the one hand and, on the other, the increasing appetite from voters for the country to move on.
A final decision on whether to cut a deal with the EU will rest with Johnson. But a perceived false move by Truss could damage her chances of success in a future Conservative leadership contest, for which she’s considered a strong contender.
Will Tanner, director of the Onward think tank and a former No. 10 adviser, said Johnson’s decision to hand Truss the Brexit brief is “an endorsement of her capabilities” and an opportunity for her to show she’s a serious negotiator.
“She needs to deliver the best deal she possibly can for the United Kingdom, and that would be true whether she was a leadership contender or not,” he said. “That is a difficult task given some of the demands of the most Euroskeptic wing of the party, but ultimately she will want to come to a resolution because not doing so would have very significant economic consequences for the U.K. — especially in the short-term as we emerge from the pandemic.”
Truss’ first words on Brexit will give a good indication of whether she will seek a compromise or keep Frost’s hard-line strategy going, a person with knowledge of the foreign secretary said.
“If it’s the former, it means she’s judged she can get away with a compromise without damaging her popularity and will get it out of the way, spin it as a win, and try [to] get on with trying to be PM,” they said.
“If it’s the latter, she’s judged she can’t compromise without damaging her popularity and she’ll embrace the toughest position regardless of what it means for NI [Northern Ireland].”
The man in the shadows
Truss will lead protocol discussions and chair meetings of the EU-U.K. Joint Committee and Joint Partnership Council, which oversee the Brexit divorce deal and the trade agreement, respectively.
The prime minister’s official spokesman said Monday that all of Frost’s responsibilities, including a controversial review of laws inherited from the EU, will pass from the Cabinet Office to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).
Given the breadth of Truss’ expanded brief — her department recently swallowed up the international development portfolio as well — and the amount of overseas travel involved, there’s plenty of interest in her deputy: Chris Heaton-Harris. He’s a former minister at the Department for Transport, who now moves to Europe minister at the FCDO, replacing Wendy Morton.
Heaton-Harris is a true blue Brexiteer, who served as an MEP for 10 years and chaired the European Research Group of Conservative Euroskeptic MPs. As a Conservative whip, Heaton-Harris triggered outrage among British academics in 2017 when he sent a letter to university vice-chancellors demanding the names of any scholars involved in teaching European affairs “with particular reference to Brexit,” as well as a copy of each university’s syllabus and any online lectures on Britain’s EU departure.
He also raised eyebrows after meeting with representatives from the far-right Spanish party Vox in Westminster. The government said at the time he was “not acting in a ministerial capacity” but Iván Espinosa de los Monteros, one of the Vox politicians, said “Brexit was the main topic” of their conversation.
His appointment to the FCDO goes a long way to reassure Conservative Euroskeptics, who reacted with dismay at Frost’s sudden resignation. But it’s dampened hopes among business leaders that solutions to trade disruption in Northern Ireland will be found soon.
“There’s a lot of people really worried because the person doing the day-to-day will be Chris Heaton-Harris, who was chair of the ERG. He has no love for Europe,” a business representative said. “We need a calm, level head in this. We have concerns about whether he will be able to deliver what business needs.”
Tanner described Heaton-Harris as a “very capable and level-headed person,” however, saying the new minister could play a decisive role in resolving the Northern Ireland trade dispute — and persuading the Brexit faithful back home that a compromise is acceptable.
“The Conservative Party is in a febrile place at the moment and the possibility for the Northern Ireland protocol negotiations to upset the balance of the government is quite high. Any deal struck needs to command the confidence of the backbenches of the Conservative Party,” he said.
In London’s diplomatic quarters of Belgravia, the news of Frost’s departure Saturday night dropped like a bomb. But when it comes to trying to tell the future, diplomats prefer to be cautious.
With Truss in charge, the EU expects a “calmer negotiation” on the Northern Ireland protocol and other Brexit fronts, an envoy from one member state said, warning that a lot would depend on how much political space and responsibility Heaton-Harris is granted.
Pointing to Truss’ apparent interest in the Tory leadership, the diplomat said: “The big question is whether she will leave the bitter chalice to Heaton-Harris or will adopt a dominant role in the dossier.”
A second diplomat said it “seems unlikely that she would go into the same level of detail as David Frost,” while a third summarized the general state of mind across the EU: “We are on a wait-and-see mode.”
Frost’s resignation was, however, met with relief on the Continent. The former Brexit minister had made few friends among EU officials and diplomats, who complained his demands were based on anti-EU, libertarian ideology rather than economic rationale. Brussels blamed this for London’s insistence on reducing the role of Court of Justice of the European Union in dispute-resolution in Northern Ireland, which remains one of the biggest sticking points in the protocol talks.
The Brexit minister was well aware of these criticisms, but countered maximum freedom was needed to the dividends of Brexit. He admitted to having instructed his officials to resist their impulse to be nice and friendly with EU counterparts during the difficult Brexit negotiations — in the belief that being tough was the best way to achieve results.
The bloc now hopes Truss, regarded as capable, engaging and good-humored, can be a more amicable counterpart whenever a dispute related to Brexit arises. Although Truss described herself as “one of the more ideological” Conservative politicians in an interview with POLITICO in March, there’s a sense in Brussels that she might be more determined to finish the talks on the protocol and concentrate on other important issues in the relationship with the EU, such as countering Russia in Eastern Europe and the cyberspace.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Frost ruled out a softer approach to the Northern Ireland talks as a result of his departure. “Right up to the last day we’ve been absolutely aligned on that — and Liz Truss and Chris Heaton-Harris I’m sure are going to do a great job.”
Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.
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