A previously passionate Remainer now in charge of negotiating the Northern Ireland Protocol with her Conservative Party leadership credentials in the balance? Those familiar with the story of Dune will know that Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’ task is remarkably similar to that of Leto Atreides, it presents both a dangerous trap and a major opportunity.
Boris Johnson’s credibility has been catastrophically damaged over the past few weeks: He is now less trusted on Covid guidance than social media, and his YouGov disapproval rating breached 70% yesterday. If the public’s perception of him wasn’t bad enough, Lord Frost’s resignation as Minister for EU Relations has further undermined Johnson’s standing amongst the Brexiteer wing of the Conservatives.
Whatever your view of David Frost, he was undoubtedly a thorn in the EU’s side. Brexiteers trusted Frost to stand firm against the EU (which he more or less did), now they will worry that more concessions will be offered in future discussions. Truss faces a dilemma in this regard, standing firm could see her reputation across the Channel diminish, whereas folding could threaten the UK’s long-term interests.
As much as the Brexiteers would like to see the same nerve employed again, talks on the Northern Ireland Protocol had become stagnant and a change in tactics was inevitable. Whilst successful negotiations require a certain level of adversariness, having the Foreign Secretary deal with the EU over the issue will surely make talks more conciliatory. The rest of Truss’ remit necessitates that she maintains good relationships with many of the negotiators and the European Union itself. What remains to be seen is whether she will be softer on previous red lines. We have already seen the UK’s position soften recently – such as the role of ECJ Judges in Northern Ireland – and it is possible Truss may go further.
Success is far from a given, especially considering that Truss’ record is somewhat mixed. She is not immune to gaffs, indeed her past outrage at Britain’s cheese imports in a speech prompted a ritual among civils servants called ‘cheese time’, whilst another speech instigated ‘pork markets’ memes. Nevertheless, she was hugely popular as International Trade Secretary and drew praise for her patriotic vision for Britain. It does also help when you’re pictured riding a tank in Eastern Europe – something Thatcher would know all about…
PR stunts like this have ensured she has topped ConservativeHome’s Cabinet member satisfaction ranking since November 2020. Rishi Sunak, the other frontrunner in any leadership contest, has gone quiet since the Autumn Spending Review, and many weren’t even aware that he was in California last week. Of course, allowing Johnson to struggle with Covid decision-making and absorb the majority of public criticism throughout the winter, only to then mount a leadership challenge next summer, may be the reason behind this. Either way, at this point in time, the Conservative Party membership would seemingly pick the neo-Thatcherite appeal of Truss over Sunak’s safe pair of hands in replacing the PM.
Giving the Brexit brief to Truss is a cunning but risky move from Johnson. Either she succeeds and her credentials amongst Brexiteers is secured, or she fails and her leadership threat plummets as quickly as it rose. The country’s highest tax burden in 70 years bruised Sunak’s aura, and Truss’ ghost of Brexit-past may be what inflicts a sizeable dent in her momentum.