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Mistruss in the UK’s future

Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the “Europe At Large” column.   

PARIS — Like a band that only knows two tunes, the overwhelmingly white, male and elderly membership of Britain’s Conservative Party has given the nation a replica of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister to succeed a pantomime version of Winston Churchill felled by scandals. 

Just as former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a biographer of Churchill, sought to imitate the wartime leader’s swagger and oratory but showed none of his strategic depth, Liz Truss has chosen to imitate the dress code, strident tone and arch-conservative ideology of Thatcher, while ignoring her heroine’s record as co-founder and champion of the European Union’s single market. 

But not only are the Tories’ greatest hits no longer in vogue with the electorate, they are ill-adapted to the day’s domestic and international circumstances. And Truss, the fourth Conservative prime minister in six years of political turmoil, seems likely to be a fag-end leader, with a cabinet that looks like a Light Brigade of right-wing loyalists and hardcore Brexiteers charging into a socioeconomic Valley of Death.  

Although no one in government will admit it, the United Kingdom’s economy has been weakened by Britain’s exit from the EU. The country currently has the highest inflation rate among major industrialized countries, growing labor unrest, rising separatism in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and diminishing influence in Brussels and Washington.  

Truss risks incurring the same fate as James Callaghan, who succeeded Harold Wilson in Downing Street in the late 1970s, when the governing Labour Party was exhausted, had run out of ideas and faced stagflation, strikes and factional feuding, culminating in the “winter of discontent” of 1978-79.  

It doomed Labour to 18 years in opposition. 

So far, Truss’s demeanor as a minister and leadership candidate suggests she is a two-dimensional, confrontational politician, with a tin ear for social distress and an innate insensitivity to the U.K.’s main foreign relationships in Europe and North America.  

If she goes about implementing the policies she championed during the Tory contest, she could trigger a trade war with the EU — the U.K.’s largest trading partner — provoke more strikes at home, and stoke inflation, making all but the wealthiest Britons poorer. 

In her attempts to channel Thatcher as a free-market, small-state Iron Lady, Truss also lacks the fundamental component of a pantomime villain on whom to target national anger, as her heroine did with Argentine military dictator Leopoldo Galtieri during the Falklands War, or the National Union of Mineworkers Marxist leader Arthur Scargill during the 1983-84 miners’ strike.  

In her maiden speech, the new prime minister squarely blamed the U.K.’s cost of living and energy problems on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and on the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic without, of course, mentioning the damage of Brexit— an approach that may not assuage the public if she doggedly refuses to tax energy companies’ windfall profits to help heat their homes. 

And while the death of Queen Elizabeth gave Truss an opportunity to embody the nation’s grief and lead it in mourning, her wooden tribute to the longest-reigning monarch paled in comparison with former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s heartfelt eulogy for Princess Diana as “the people’s princess.” 

Truss’ Thatcherian platform of tax cuts and deregulation appealed to the 81,000 hardline Tories who voted for her — which makes up 0.15 percent of the total electorate — but it’s out of sync with global trends toward state intervention in energy markets and supply chains, and greater public investment in infrastructure and green energy. 

Britain’s Conservative Party has given the nation a replica of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister | Fresco/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Her vaunted disdain for advice from civil servants suggests she’ll find it hard to pivot to pragmatism unless she’s convinced her political survival is at stake, as she apparently was on household energy bills. But she seems much less likely to make a U-turn toward Europe. 

Having supported the “Remain” cause in the 2016 referendum on EU membership, Truss appeased the most anti-European faction of her party, introducing a bill to tear up the trade arrangements between the U.K. and Northern Ireland in the EU withdrawal agreement Johnson negotiated, signed and then reneged on.  

While that legislation is being debated in the House of Lords, which opposes the government’s threat to violate international law, Truss now has time to change tack and cut a deal with Brussels, or to double down on confrontation by triggering an article in the Northern Ireland Protocol that would allow either side to suspend the agreement. 

She told parliament her preference is for a negotiated solution, and United States President Joe Biden pushed her to compromise in their first phone call. But it’s not clear whether Truss will be willing to face down the hardline Protestant unionists and Tory sovereigntists who want to kill the protocol, which mandates border checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain, since the territory remains within the EU single market.  

She gave a private preview of her abrasive style back in July at an informal annual Franco-British meeting in Versailles, when, according to participants, she failed — or didn’t bother — to read the room, and delivered a jarring speech lionizing Great Global Britain and the Anglosphere.  

Her British exceptionalism went down like a lead balloon, following a year in which the U.S. and the U.K. secretly negotiated the so-called AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine deal with Australia, prompting Canberra to scrap a deal signed with France for conventional submarines. Some of the Brits in the room were as embarrassed by Truss’s lack of sensitivity as the French were dismayed by her assertive nationalism.  

The closed-door hectoring later went public during one of the Conservative hustings events, when Truss was asked whether French President Emmanuel Macron was a friend or a foe, and she replied that “the jury is still out” and she would judge him by his deeds, not his words. 

It seems unlikely that behind-the-scenes coordination between London and Brussels on Russia sanctions policy, which began when Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February, will grow into anything more substantial on her watch. Truss, much like Johnson, has missed no opportunity to claim that the U.K.’s strong military support for Kyiv was due to the “freedom” of Brexit — though tell that to the Poles or Balts who have poured weapons into Ukraine without leaving the EU. 

Overall, the prevailing view in Brussels, Paris and Berlin is that things will likely get worse with London before they get better, and that European governments will have to wait Truss out and hope for a turning point after the next U.K. general election, which must be held by January 2025. 



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