Liz Truss attends a news conference at the Foreign Commonwealth & Development Office in London. Reuters
The Independent, Tribune News Service
It is very hard to know what Liz Truss actually thinks about anything. As a student she was a Liberal Democrat, and more recently she has agreed with whatever is most beneficial to her own personal advancement. This is not to say that everything she says is untrue; merely that it is impossible to know when her pronouncements happen to have dovetailed with her sincerely held opinion.
Not that it really matters. Any sane person looking at the Truss back catalogue, taken as a whole, can only conclude that there is absolutely no point taking her seriously, which is, somewhat fortuitously, the entirely correct position to reach. Take the most recent execrable drivel to be found in The Sun this morning, on the subject of the Northern Ireland protocol. By way of background, in 2016 Truss campaigned for Remain. Having spent the preceding years writing various deranged libertarian pamphlets, it’s not entirely clear why.
There are two possible reasons. One is that having previously worked as an analyst at the Treasury, she concluded that, for all the imagined benefits of Brexit, mainly sovereignty (hope you’re all enjoying your new-found sovereignty, by the way), it simply wasn’t worth the massive economic hit. The other is that she didn’t think Leave could possibly win, and so it would be terrible not to be on side with Cameron and Osborne.
Which of these you choose to believe is entirely up to you, though if it helps, when I was sitting next to her at a dinner in April 2016, most of the conversation was spent with me being really not so sure that Remain would definitely win, and her being adamant that it couldn’t possibly lose by a margin smaller than 60/40. So obviously it’s a mystery.
Yesterday, Truss announced new legislation enabling the government unilaterally to overwrite parts of the Northern Ireland protocol. In other words, to take the oven-ready deal, which was the basis for an entire general election campaign, out of the oven, and chuck it out of the window. The EU naturally isn’t having it. They expect our country to agree to a deal it signed.
Truss, by the way, has also made herself incredibly popular with Tories by going around the world, cutting and pasting EU-based trade deals with various countries, and then announcing them on her own Instagram.
On Monday night, on a TV show I happened to be on, the US congressman Brendan Boyle, who sits on the very powerful committee on ways and means in Congress, and would therefore have to sign off any US-UK trade deal, didn’t pause before making clear his view that you’d have to be slightly mad to agree to a trade deal with a country “that’s already trying to go back on one it just signed”. So good luck with that.
Truss also spent the hours after making her announcement talking on television about the Irish “tea sock”. You would think, perhaps, that the foreign secretary, and now chief Brexit negotiator, would have taken the 10 seconds it requires to learn how to pronounce the word that describes the Irish prime minister, not least as it really is not very hard (it’s “tea shook”). But then, that Instagram feed isn’t going to curate itself. A picture tells a thousand words, after all, even if those words tend to be: “Why are you wearing a bearskin hat in Moscow when it’s about 18C?”
It’s never quite clear whether she actually agrees with Boris Johnson, while all he does is artlessly lie about why he’s trying to renege on his own deal, talking transparent garbage about the protocol and the Good Friday Agreement. (The protocol doesn’t threaten the Good Friday Agreement. What it does do is annoy the Democratic Unionist Party, mainly because they were too stupid to understand what Brexit was before they campaigned for it, and are also, just for the record, the only Northern Irish political party that walked out on the Good Friday Agreement and refused to sign up to it.)
All that is under threat is Johnson’s support from the headbanging wing of his party, a wing that Truss briefly left when she thought Remain would win – a strategic decision that has rendered it impossible to believe a word she says.
It’s never quite clear whether a part of her soul is actually dying when she describes people who have the temerity to point out the shamefulness of what the government is doing as “a strand of thinking in Britain that actively doesn’t like our country very much”.
She is making what has become a familiar error among members of the worst government the country has ever had, which is to confuse “our country” with “our government”. It’s a point that doesn’t bear much scrutiny, when one looks at the now stunning unpopularity of the government she serves in. This stuff is always the last roll of the dice for the terminally unpopular populist whose time is up.
But she is also strategising to be Johnson’s replacement, which, somewhat remarkably in Tory world, really does require pretending to be just like him, at least for the time being.
At some point, you would think, Liz Truss may have to try to make it even vaguely clear what she actually thinks, and who she actually is. The trouble is, at that point, it will quickly become clear that it’s already much, much too late.
The bill also seeks to remove EU controls over state aid measures involving taxation and spending. No doubt, the government would like that, but EU market access comes at a price, so it’s hard to see how that will pass muster. And while the complete removal of the EU’s Court of Justice from overseeing disputes will please hardcore Brexiteers, it is of little concern to Northern Ireland voters and will just anger the EU. The EU also has a strong interest in cross-community support in Northern Ireland and a successful implementation of the Protocol, which is motivation for finding greater flexibility. The only way to get there, however, will be a negotiation in which the EU has the stronger hand.
So far, the list of critics includes legal experts, the European Commission, Democratic lawmakers in the US, the German government, the Irish government, and many Brexit supporters including a fair number of Tory politicians. A majority of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly sent a letter to Johnson on Monday saying the bill “flies in the face of the expressed wishes of not just most businesses, but most people in Northern Ireland.” Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which had left the power-sharing arrangement in protest of the Protocol, said it was reserving judgment. That should come as no surprise — the DUP is never impressed. It will hold out for more, though it always seems to get less.
The alternative to negotiating over existing problems is a trade war, which should be unthinkable especially in the context of the current geopolitics. Maybe Johnson’s gamble is once again that brinkmanship brings results. If successful, it leaves Global Britain looking like an empty slogan. But the bigger risk is that more than reputation will be lost here: While the EU stands to lose if tensions spill over into retaliation, it is the U.K. — the worst-performing advanced economy — that will suffer most.
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