The UK must avoid conflict with Europe and China

Liz Truss says she wants to take a tough line but any freedom to forge her own foreign policy is a casualty of the economic turmoil following her first budget.

Expert comment
Published 11 October 2022 3 minute READ

The tax-cutting budget from new UK chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng was clearly not inhibited by any apparent concern for the markets’ response. But the interest rate rise it contributed to and the scepticism raining down on the Truss government should force a recognition that economic vulnerability now constrains what the UK tries to do abroad.

That would mean taking a more cautious approach than the new UK prime minister seems to want to adopt. The Treasury and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) may sit next to each other in Whitehall’s parade of 18th century buildings, but a huge gulf lies between them.

When talking to officials, it is striking how those in one building make decisions without reference to the other. Foreign policy is made with no consideration of the UK’s need to borrow money in the markets, and budgets are written with little calculation of the effect of decisions next door – although the Cabinet Office does at least try to reconcile these.

But that approach is a luxury which the budget response and the sharp rise in national debt it will bring makes no longer affordable.

Repairing EU trade relations is priority

The first lesson is that any worsening of trade relations with the European Union (EU) is not now something the UK can afford to contemplate. The markets would take an even dimmer view of national finances if the UK were to become embroiled in an even more fractious trade dispute with its closest and largest trading partner.

The UK cannot afford to talk about taking a tougher line on China – as the prime minister has already done – without clearly knowing what the economic impact would be and being sure voters are prepared to pay this price

When campaigning for the Conservative party leadership, Liz Truss talked tough on the Northern Ireland protocol and her unwillingness to compromise much with the EU. Since she became prime minister, sounds from both the UK and EU have been much more conciliatory, with suggestions that a deal could be just a few details away.

And yet the Truss government is still pressing ahead with the controversial legislation which would enable the UK unilaterally to walk away from parts of the treaty it signed – the House of Lords will debate the bill and its most contentious measures, such as the extensive new powers it gives ministers, on 11 October.

But there are suggestions from officials that, although Truss would lose too much face by withdrawing the legislation, the government may choose not to contest any Lords amendments vigorously.

That would be wise. The prime minister should know the financial path she has chosen with her chancellor makes carrying out the threats of walking away from a deal too costly to afford. As it is, the markets are hardly looking with equanimity on the prospect of the UK borrowing £100 billion to shield consumers from rising gas prices.

A £43 billion package of proposed tax cuts with no explanation – yet – of how the government will pay for them would be even less comfortable were the UK to take such a hard line on the Northern Ireland protocol that it provokes a trade war with the EU. Brussels can also make those calculations and, for all the recent talk of concessions, is expected to hold fast to its new position.

For the same reasons, the UK cannot afford to talk about taking a tougher line on China – as the prime minister has already done – without clearly knowing what the economic impact would be and being sure voters are prepared to pay this price. Years of courting commercial links with China mean they now weave their way through the UK economy.

The dependence of universities on Chinese students and the income they bring is already well-known and heavily debated – but the exposure of the UK economy to digital technology and components from China is even greater, and China is now the largest source of imports for the UK with £63.6 billion or 13.3 per cent of all goods imports according to the Office for National Statistics.

When campaigning for the Conservative party leadership, Liz Truss talked tough on the Northern Ireland protocol and her unwillingness to compromise much with the EU. Since she became prime minister, sounds from both the UK and EU have been much more conciliatory

Much of that was laptops, computers, telecoms and phones as well as toys and clothes; there are few households or offices that will not have these products. China is also the sixth largest destination for UK exports, with £18.8 billion or 5.8 per cent of goods exports, much of it machinery and cars.

Scottish Liberal Democrat peer Lord Purvis expressed concern at these figures because of the implication that the UK’s ability to take a tough line with China on human rights was now enormously circumscribed. And defence and intelligence chiefs are also warning of the UK’s vulnerability.

Taking a hard line needs context

There are signs the government is concerned enough to begin to map out this economic vulnerability but no signs that it yet has a full picture. Without knowing the economic hit of a frostier relationship, and confidence the House of Commons accepts it, Liz Truss would be brave to label China ‘a threat to national security’ – as her supporters indicated during the leadership campaign – when she updates the integrated review of defence and security in the coming months.

Of course, foreign policy should not be inspired by commercial concerns alone. There are wider reasons to develop a clearer China strategy to help lay out a more consistent future path. On his recent trip to East Asia, UK foreign secretary James Cleverly heard from UK partners that they were disconcerted by the lurch from George Osborne’s ‘golden years’ to the Truss charge of a China ‘threat’.

When Liz Truss was UK foreign secretary, some forecast she would pursue mercantilism given her focus on forging post-Brexit trade deals but, as it turned out, that was not the spirit of her tenure.

The UK must avoid conflict with Europe and China 2nd part

Although she did pursue trade deals, Truss aimed for the UK to build a ‘network of liberty’ around the world. She has kept up that tone since, talking tough towards China and towards the EU on the Northern Ireland border question.

The UK has also been able to take a hard line – on principle – towards Russia over the invasion of Ukraine because it is less dependent on Russian gas than many other European countries, and because the government’s ability to borrow enabled it to pay to shield people from rising energy bills.

But the worsening economic position Truss must now work with – partly because of her first budget, partly due to higher gas prices – constrains what she can do. The plunge in confidence she has suffered, among markets as well as voters, severely limits her ability to be the disrupter from ideological first principles that she would like to be.