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How Will Prime Minister Liz Truss Handle Europe?

When she was the U.K.’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss took a hardline approach to Europe, wanting to remove all remaining EU legislation from U.K. law. Will that change now that she is prime minister? The need to cooperate over the energy crisis and Ukraine may complicate her agenda. Jill Rutter is a senior research fellow at the non-partisan academic think tank, UK in a Changing Europe.

RUTTER: The biggest source of tension between the EU and the U.K. is the Northern Ireland protocol, which has not been resolved. When she first took over as the U.K.’s foreign secretary in December, Liz Truss made much of the fact she was going to try to have a constructive relationship with the EU and launched what was then termed a charm offensive with her EU opposite number Maroš Šefčovič. 

But that charm offensive didn’t last very long. And by February this year, she had become a big supporter of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, a piece of legislation designed to give the U.K. government unilateral powers to override lots of the withdrawal agreement about the trading relationships between Great Britain. She got Attorney General Suella Braverman to produce an opinion that said this wasn’t breaking international law because the U.K. could justify taking this extreme action by invoking an international law known as the doctrine of necessity, claiming that there was an imminent peril to the U.K.’s interest that justified it taking powers to override its treaty obligations.

Euroskepticism

BRINK: Do you think that now that she is prime minister, she will moderate her anti-EU tone?

RUTTER: When she was asked in the leadership election campaign to list her achievements, she said one of her big achievements was the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, even though it hadn’t achieved any of its objectives, it hadn’t sorted out Northern Ireland trading arrangements, hadn’t forced the EU to move in any significant way nor had it restored government in Northern Ireland.

All the indications we have so far are that she will stick with the course that she set herself as foreign secretary — though she still maintains that her preference is to achieve a negotiated settlement with the EU. In the leadership campaign, she very much became the candidate of the hard-line Brexiters in the conservative party, the European Research Group. She wasn’t their first choice, but when their first choice Suella Braverman was eliminated from the contest, most of them rallied behind Liz Truss. So she’s quite dependent on that hard-line Brexit faction for her election.

Boris Johnson had an election in mid-winter in December and won. So that rule might have changed and she might try to play it very, very long.

It’s not clear exactly where her instincts are, but she certainly doesn’t have any reservations about playing to the euroskeptic crowd. In her inaugural speech as she took over the prime ministership on Downing Street, she didn’t mention anything about Northern Ireland and trying to improve relations with the EU. That said, there are some thoughts that the prime minister might use the window of her arrival to reset the relationship. But whether she could take her new team at the Northern Ireland office — where she has appointed two leading members of the very euroskeptic European Research Group as ministers, is an open question if she decided to compromise. 

When Rishi Sunak, whom she beat in the leadership contest, was chancellor, he expressed reservations about risking a trade war with the EU at a time when the economy was so precarious. But he is not in Liz Truss’s cabinet and hardly any of Sunak’s supporters are in her cabinet either. She really appointed people who supported her in the leadership campaign. So it’s not all clear there’ll be any restraining voices. And one of the things to remember is that there were times when Liz Truss was being quite aggressive with the EU as foreign secretary and had to be reined in by Boris Johnson as prime minister. Obviously, as prime minister, she doesn’t have people to rein her in in that way.

A Deregulation Agenda

BRINK: One of her key planks is this idea of making the U.K. a high-growth economy. Do you think that this is a realistic path to pursue in light of all these crises that she’s facing?

RUTTER: She wants to do two things as part of her growth agenda. She wants to lower taxes, but in the short-run, though, as part of her energy bailout package, she’s going to have to massively increase government borrowing and potentially, therefore, get the Bank of England to put up interest rates a bit further, and that’s going to add to public spending. So her low-tax agenda looks quite difficult to deliver. 

The other part of this is to pursue deregulation. Liz Truss mentioned freedom a lot in her speech on the steps of Downing Street. And she has been part of a group of conservatives who do want to deregulate. The problem, of course, if you want to deregulate very substantially is the need to get that through Parliament. And it’s far from clear if she can do that. She’s got quite a lot of people who didn’t vote for her among the MPs. Quite a lot of the Boris Johnson electoral coalition would have a lot of reservations about things like reducing workers’ rights since a lot of people are in precarious labor. 

So I think she might find it very difficult to get a big, really significant deregulatory agenda through. Moreover, deregulation wasn’t a big feature of the 2019 conservative manifesto. And if something wasn’t in an election manifesto, then the House of Lords is usually much more willing to cut up rough about it and resist it.

BRINK: And she really hasn’t got long to do all this because they have to hold an election in two years.

RUTTER: We were looking at the last possible date, which is in January 2025. So she has a bit over two years. Until Boris Johnson held an election in December, we always assumed that you didn’t want to have winter elections in the U.K. because it was thought people wouldn’t like to go out to vote or campaign in a U.K. winter. But Boris Johnson had an election in mid-winter in December and won. So that rule might have changed and she might try to play it very, very long. 

But I think one of the real risks for Liz Truss is, does she even make it to an election? There are quite a lot of people sitting around saying, “We’ll see how she does,” “We could always have another vote of no confidence.” And they know that they have Boris Johnson sitting there saying, “You have a proven election winner here, and you shouldn’t have drummed me out of office in the first place.”

Jill Rutter

Senior Research Fellow of UK in a Changing Europe

Jill Rutter is a senior research fellow at the non-partisan academic think tank, UK in a Changing Europe, which recently released the report What Would No Deal Mean? Before that, she led Brexit work at the Institute for Government, which she joined after holding senior roles in the UK civil service.

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