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Experts react September 5, 2022

Experts react: The United Kingdom has a new prime minister. What should the world expect from Liz Truss?

By Atlantic Council experts

On Monday, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was selected as her country’s newest prime minister, after triumphing over former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak in a vote by some 160,000 members of the Conservative Party.

Truss takes over for Boris Johnson at a momentous time: War has come to Europe, inflation is battering the British economy, and the United Kingdom’s messy divorce from the European Union (EU) is dragging on with a dispute over the Irish border. How will Truss, who joined the Atlantic Council in March to deliver the 2022 Christopher J. Makins Lecture, balance these challenges and deal with allies and foes abroad? We reached out to experts from the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center for their thoughts.

Jump to an expert reaction:

Livia Godaert : Allies and friends will need to keep the new prime minister’s attention

Sir Peter Westmacott: Expect a shift from campaign-trail rhetoric to governing reality

Ben Judah: The time for shape-shifting is over

James Batchik: Which road will Truss take with Europe?

Allies and friends will need to keep the new prime minister’s attention

Less than eighteen months after the launch of “Global Britain,” it’s hard not to see it as a troubled initiative. Rising energy bills and inflation rates, a summer of heatwaves and heated disagreements with labor unions, and dramatic scandals turned domestic political crises have unsurprisingly pulled the country’s focus inward. 

With the new prime minister decided after a tumultuous summer and contentious leadership race, we might expect that the premiership of Liz Truss will think both globally and locally. As foreign secretary, Truss spoke of a “network of liberty” that the United Kingdom was building with allies and like-minded partners. The network included many of the same priorities outlined in the Integrated Review last year: strategic trade and investment, economic security, tech leadership, and protection of freedom and democracy. 

However, I predict that we’re headed for a UK foreign-policy shift: We are going to see a turn to economic diplomacy as the priority through the Group of Seven (G7) and aggressive trade-partnership negotiations, as well as a re-think of the United Kingdom’s traditional partners on the world stage, continuing a process that began with Brexit. 

While she is committed to NATO, Truss is far less enthusiastic about partaking in broader European political processes, exemplified by her wish to scrap pieces of the Northern Ireland protocol and her apparent frustration with French President Emmanuel Macron. She has also been described as skeptical of the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom. 

Ultimately, Truss sees the United Kingdom as first among partners rather than one of the pack and is seeking out international commitments that sustain this. The “Global Britain” exercise was meant to be an honest examination of the United Kingdom’s place in the world—where it can be an effective leader, where it can be a successful facilitator and force multiplier, and where it should act in support of other key actors. Truss instead seems to be committed to Britain as a leader in a host of areas, whether or not they are where the country is most effective: support for Ukraine now and in the future, countering Russia and China, etc. But with rising challenges to the union from Scotland, new political winds in Northern Ireland, and fraying bonds in the commonwealth, her focus will be pulled in many directions beyond the domestic cost-of-living crisis. The United Kingdom has the potential to facilitate transformational policy change through collaboration—with tech regulation representing one underappreciated area—but its allies and friends will need to put in the work to keep the new prime minister’s attention.  

Livia Godaert is a nonresident fellow at the Europe Center.

Expect a shift from campaign-trail rhetoric to governing reality

Just 0.3 percent of the British electorate choose the leader of the Conservative Party and thus—in this case—the next prime minister of the United Kingdom. To defeat her rivals, Liz Truss threw plenty of red meat at this unrepresentative, mainly white, male, southern, prosperous, aging, and anti-European sample of the electorate. This included commitments to cut taxes that have been widely criticized by economists (and some fellow Tories) and subsequently modified. She also made Britain’s allies wonder what’s coming by declining to say that she thought the president of France—the democratically elected (which she is not) head of state of Britain’s closest neighbor and ally—was a friend of the United Kingdom. She advises the Ukrainians not to give an inch to Vladimir Putin, while asserting that she will soon designate China a threat to UK national security.   

But recent leadership contests within both the Labour and Conservative parties have shown that what appeals to the membership doesn’t necessarily appeal to the general public or win general elections. Truss has a record of rapidly shifting her positions—on the monarchy, Brexit, economic policy, sending troops to Ukraine, and much else—when the need arises, and she did not win as big as the polls had predicted. So although she can be expected to continue blaming the EU for Britain’s economic ills and the self-inflicted problems caused by Brexit, there may be a more considered approach once the new prime minister gets her feet under the desk of 10 Downing Street, has to deal with the very real crises bequeathed to her by her predecessor, Boris Johnson, and finds that she needs friends abroad.

Sir Peter Westmacott is a distinguished ambassadorial fellow with the Europe Center and a former British ambassador to the United States, France, and Turkey.

The time for shape-shifting is over

Liz Truss has risen like a chameleon through British politics—always trying to please her direct audience. She took her first steps in politics as a student activist for the third-party Liberal Democrats, advocating the legalization of cannabis and the abolition of the monarchy when she was at Oxford University, when that was a crowd-pleaser. She then turned into a Conservative MP who pushed for Britain to remain in the European Union when pro-EU politicians ran the party, before morphing into a strident Brexiteer. To win the leadership of her party she has run explicitly as a base-pleaser, making her pitch exactly what the aging, wealthy, and right-wing membership want to hear. This has taken her to the very top.

Truss will now, almost certainly, immediately shift her politics to fit the view from Downing Street, with talk of a one-hundred-billion-dollar package to tackle the energy crisis. The skills she will need now are the opposite of those that have taken her to this point. She will need to fix her name to big, precise policies and stick to them to face the magnitude of the crisis that confronts her country—and not shape-shift, which won’t help Britain, let alone Liz Truss if she has any hope of winning the next election.

Ben Judah is the director of the Europe Center’s Transform Europe Initiative and a veteran British journalist.

Which road will Truss take with Europe?

The European Union will need to wait and see which version of Liz Truss it will get. Having campaigned as a Remainer in the 2016 Brexit referendum but since evolved into a Brexiteer, Truss has been both confrontational and cooperative with Europe. Now, as prime minister, she finds herself at a crossroads with Europe again.

On the one hand, Truss risks seriously damaging her relationship with the EU early in her premiership over the situation in Northern Ireland. Truss is a sponsor of a bill to allow ministers to violate the Northern Ireland Protocol, which imposes EU-mandated customs and border checks for goods shipped to Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom rather than on the border with the Republic of Ireland. She has already threatened to invoke Article 16 of the agreement, unilaterally suspending part of the Protocol. The EU, for its part, has rejected renegotiating the agreement, having already launched legal proceedings against London for failing to enforce EU rules. Brussels is also debating additional retaliatory measures such as lawsuits or fines—setting up a collision course with Truss. With sky-high inflation and energy shortages dominating the political agenda at home, there may be strong incentives for Truss to increase anti-Brussels rhetoric for domestic political gain.

On the other hand, Truss has found ways to work with Europe before. As foreign secretary, she attended the European Council’s Extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, joining the United States, Canada, and the NATO secretary general to coordinate and show transatlantic resolve. The United Kingdom is a leading supporter of Ukraine among European countries and will be essential to the future of Europe’s security, as French President Emmanuel Macron’s inclusion of Britain in his proposal for a European political community suggests. The recognition on both sides of the Channel of Britain’s role is an opening for a more functional, forward-looking relationship.

Which option Truss will choose with Europe is unclear. She may tread a middle ground, hoping to park but not resolve the Northern Ireland issue, or lean in on confrontation to score points at home and within her party. Until then, expect relations with Brussels to be uncertain.

James Batchik is an assistant director at the Europe Center.

Further reading

Related Experts: Peter Westmacott, Ben Judah, James Batchik, and Livia Godaert

Image: FILE PHOTO: Conservative leadership candidate Liz Truss attends a hustings event, part of the Conservative party leadership campaign, in London, Britain August 31, 2022. REUTERS/Hannah McKay/File Photo