The rising fortunes of Liz Truss in the UK

From foreign Secretary to Brexit portfolio, she handles key portfolios at pivotal moment

Published : 23 Dec 2021 09:01 PM | Updated : 23 Dec 2021 09:01 PM

Mick O'Reilly

This is a Christmas that Boris Johnson would rather forget. With three months of never-ending sleaze scandals, poorly perceived announcements and being caught in a snare of statements over whether or not Covid rules were flaunted by the UK Prime Minister and his staff, there is little festive cheer in Downing Street or nearby West­minster at the moment.

At the weekend, the Prime Minister was dealt another blow then his most senior Brexit minister quit, walking away from Cabinet because he said he could not support the latest Covid restrictions brought in by the government.

Lord David Frost, who led the UK government’s negotiations with the European Union in the post-Brexit era – there is much still to be settled – also hinted that he was unhappy with Johnson’s leadership style. Coming just two days after the Conservatives heavily lost the North Shropshire byelection, turning a 23,000 majority into a loss of more than 5,000 votes, the resignation is but yet another sign that all is far from well in Downing Street or in the party ranks.

Multiple sources have indicated that the Prime Minister is on notice from many within the party that unless there is a reversal of fortunes and direction over the next three months, Johnson will face a leadership challenge.

Mutiny in the crew

But who might be in line to stand against the PM should that leadership review occur, or would seek to lead the party should he step aside or be thrown overboard. Yes, there is mutiny in the crew.

You know that old expression about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer? Well, it seems to have been taken onboard by Johnson, with the announcement that Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, is to take charge of the Brexit portfolio relinquished by Lord Frost. She will be responsible for both roles – certainly burnishing her standing as a very senior and capable minister who might one day lead the party, or at least be able to be a very credible leadership contender along with Rishi Sunak, Savid Javid, Michael Gove and Dominic Raab among others.

Truss has also impressed since moving to the Foreign Office and has signed a number of trade deals that are now the reality of a post-Brexit Britain free to make those deals outside its forsaken ties to the world’s third-largest market on its doorstep. The deals might not have anywhere near the numbers of day-to-trade that existed when the UK was a member of the EU, but die-hard Brexiteers love the freedom anyway.

Truss herself is no die-hard Brexiteer, an active Remain campaigner during the referendum. For the record now, and obviously to further her political career, she is a booster for the new Britain on the global stage. But the biggest problem she faces when it comes to her new responsibilities is working through the minefield that Johnson created by accepting a Withdrawal Agreement that placed Northern Ireland inside the customs union with the EU and drawing the customs border down the Irish Sea between the province and England, Scotland and Wales.

Ocean of red tape

Truss herself is no die-hard Brexiteer, an active 

Remain campaigner during the referendum. For the record now, 

and obviously to further her political career, she is a 

booster for the new Britain on the global stage

The protocol has meant shortages of some products in Northern Ireland, with supplies in the rest of the UK refusing to ship goods and services across to Northern Ireland – the distance might just be 20 kilometres but there’s an ocean of red tape to be navigated.

For its part, Brussels hopes that the appointment of Truss means that the talks won’t be as confrontational, that there may be room for compromise, and that practical solutions to the issues between the EU and the UK can be found. Lord Frost was a core architect of Johnson’s core Brexit strategy from day one, and he negotiated the protocol – which was signed by Johnson’s government before it had second thoughts about it.

London and Brussels are due to resume negotiations in January on issues ranging from customs checks and controls of agri-food products moving from Britain to its province, which is in the EU single market for goods and so subject to EU laws.

As trade minister for the past two years, Truss has been a strong advocate of Britain’s economic and diplomatic realignment towards the Indo-Pacific region, spearheading efforts to join a trans-Pacific trading bloc. The 46-year-old has struck trade deals around the world, including with Japan and Australia.

But she has also failed to make significant headway in signing a trade deal with the United States. That’s the grand prize Brexiteers long for – but the Biden administration is strongly pro-EU and vested in making sure that nothing affects the integrity of the Good Friday agreement that ended three decades of violence in Northern Ireland and facilitated an open border with the Republic of Ireland.

Those talks that resume in January offer Truss an opportunity to show that she is capable of threading the eye of a very difficult needle by sorting out the difficulties created by that protocol in the first instance.

Do that, and she will be in a very advantageous position with what remains of the closeted anti-Brexiteers in Conservative ranks, while also proving to the rabid Brexiteers that she is firmly on their side and can make the reality of a strong Britain on the global stage led by a credible leader.

Mick O'Reilly is Foreign Correspondent at Gulf News. Source: Gulf News