For all the smoke-and-mirrors talk now commonplace about Brexit opportunities, there is real potential that Liz Truss could extract from the aftermath of that upheaval as well as from the turmoil in the world.
But the approach and priorities she revealed during her one year as a better UK foreign secretary than Boris Johnson was – although he did set a low bar – as well as the past three months campaigning for the leadership of her party contain a warning.
She has shown a willingness to aggravate relationships with allies in pursuit of the support of her party faithful, and of a vision of British independence as well as a tendency to dismiss economic analysis when it inconveniently questions her assertions about favoured policies.
At the heart of her political identity is a notion which is both a strength and a potentially calamitous weakness – a love of the notion of being a disrupter which injects a deliberate unpredictability into her approach towards a world in extreme flux.
If she indulges this without good judgment, she could do real damage to Britain’s prospects and standing in the world.
Ukraine and the energy crisis
In foreign policy, Europe should be her starting point and the opportunity here for the UK is clear. The war in Ukraine and crisis in the cost of energy gives it a role – despite having left the European Union (EU) – in talking to EU governments about the future of the continent on many fronts.
Johnson’s emphatic support of President Zelensky gave the UK a position of moral and strategic clarity which Truss can build on through what will be an exceptionally difficult winter for Europe’s governments.
She is in a position to persuade European leaders to remain united in Ukraine’s support while planning better how they are going to source energy. She could expand on that to help the EU find a way through its many other problems, such as upholding democratic values throughout the bloc or finding a response to migration.
There is also a chance for the UK to shape Europe’s thinking on the development and regulation of digital technology and medicine, energy, and the environment.
Truss’s declaration that the UK should now spend three per cent of its GDP on defence could help her in taking that kind of role. However this campaign declaration is not yet credible, given the pressures on the national finances and her silence so far on support for households on energy costs.
But that is the opportunity in theory and the signs are this is not her approach to Europe. Her provocative and opportunistic comment that the ‘jury’s out’ on whether President Macron (and France) was a friend or foe shocked both Britain’s allies and opponents.
For those keen to see divisions among democracies, it gave unexpected, heady encouragement, and to those within those countries, it injected a doubt about shared values which was deeply damaging. The chilly poise of Macron’s response – that the UK and France would always be allies – showed how far she had departed from normal protocol.
The episode encapsulated one of the sources of unease about the Truss style – improvisation under the banner of ‘disruption’ without thought of consequences.
However, she has shown consistency over the Northern Ireland Protocol with little sign of compromise, and that alone could cause much unnecessary damage to UK interests. It also puts her on a collision course with the EU and the UK House of Lords, due to consider controversial legislation again in early October after the Conservative party conference.
There is huge opposition in the Lords to two aspects of the legislation. The first target is the intention of the Johnson government – likely to be repeated by a Truss government – to use the bill to jettison aspects of the protocol, which many argue breaks international law. The second is the delegated power the bill would give ministers.
The cost of a new, serious clash – or worse, a full trade war – with the EU is high. There is the loss of trade, the increase in friction for business, which is consistently underestimated by the UK government, and the loss of scientific and research partnerships.
More than that, though, there is the weakening of ties to a set of allies with common values sharing an increasingly troubled neighbourhood.
US, China, and others remain important
And to say Europe should come first is not to dismiss other claims on the UK’s foreign policy. Her instinctive liking for the US will help Truss in relations with Washington at a difficult time, and her apparent intention to designate China as ‘a threat’ will support that relationship too.