Liz Truss victory in Tory leadership race would worsen UK-EU relations further

Posted By: July 24, 2022


Distributed to Congress by Irish National Caucus

Liz Truss victory in Tory leadership race would worsen UK-EU relations further

A Liz Truss victory in leadership race is likely to mean a further worsening of UK-EU relations

Stephen Collins. Irish Times. Dublin. Friday, July 22, 2022


Boris Johnson may have fallen from power in disgrace but there is no escaping the profound impact he has had on the UK and Ireland over the past six years. His legacy is likely to shape the relationship between the two countries for many years to come.

On a purely personal level Johnson’s impact on British politics was huge. Over the course of six years he brought down three prime ministers: David Cameron, Theresa May and finally himself. His most significant impact of all, though, was to radically alter the direction his country had taken for the previous half century.

As the star of the Leave campaign Johnson’s role was the decisive factor that led to the narrow victory of his side in the 2016 referendum. Over the following three years he conspired with the right-wing Conservative MPs in the European Research Group (ERG) to bring down Theresa May and ensure that the UK would not simply leave the EU but the single market and customs union as well. The impact of that on the UK’s economy and its place in the world will resonate for decades.

As far as Ireland is concerned Johnson’s insistence on a hard Brexit made it inevitable that there would have to be a customs border either on the island itself or in the Irish Sea. Having assured the DUP that he would never agree to a border in the Irish Sea, to secure their support in the defenestration of May, he then reversed engines in October 2019 and struck a deal with Leo Varadkar to do precisely what he had promised to oppose.

That U-turn was a response to the steadfast opposition of the Irish government and the EU to a hard border on the island of Ireland, and it enabled him to find a way to avoid a no-deal Brexit and clear the path to a general election. His decisive victory in that election of December 2019 was based on the slogan “Get Brexit Done” and he boasted that he had an “oven-ready deal” to achieve it.

Since then, he has tried one tactic after another to wriggle out of the deal. The final phase of this approach was the Northern Ireland protocol Bill earlier this summer, which, if passed into law by the House of Lords, will give the UK government the power to override key elements of the protocol.

Negative impact

The evidence is mounting that the hard Brexit pursed by Johnson has had a seriously negative impact on the UK and its people. Still, in spite of the fact that the country has the highest inflation rate in the G7, with the lowest growth prospects of the group for this year and next, the overwhelming political consensus in Britain is to stick with Johnson’s version of Brexit.

Far from his departure marking a change of course in terms of relations with the EU, the battle between his potential successors to win the hearts and minds of the Tory faithful prompted them all to adopt his hardline stance. Despite the fact that Rishi Sunak was known to have resisted the protocol Bill when it was first mooted at cabinet, he felt obliged to engage in anti-EU statements during the leadership campaign.

The sponsor of the protocol Bill, Liz Truss, took a far harder line, launching bitter attacks on Sunak as the one most likely to betray the Johnson legacy. The fact that Ian Paisley, Jr. has identified Truss as the only leadership contender fully committed to the abolition of the protocol tells its own story.

Sunak was quite clearly the most impressive of the leadership candidates and, as a former chancellor of the exchequer, appreciates fully the damage that would ensue from a trade war with the EU arising from the rejection of the protocol. If he wins the leadership, some improvement in UK-EU relations and the restoration of good relations between Ireland and the UK is possible.

However, at this stage the indications from opinion polls are that he will be beaten by Truss in the membership ballot. Given that she is the candidate of the ERG, her victory is likely to mean further confrontation and the possibility of a really damaging breakdown in UK-EU relations.

It is not just the likely next Conservative prime minister who is talking up confrontation with the EU over the protocol and other issues. On the day before the implosion of the Johnson premiership began, Labour leader Keir Starmer delivered a big speech setting out why he opposed the UK’s return to the single market or the customs union, never mind the EU itself. Instead, he promised to make Brexit work.

The leader of the Scottish National Party at Westminster, Ian Blackford, was scathing in his criticism. “Keir Starmer has strengthened the case for [Scottish] independence by embracing the Tories’ hard Brexit. By running scared of the Tories and mutating into a pale imitation of Boris Johnson, Starmer is offering no real change at all.’

It seems that while Johnson may be gone, his legacy will continue to poison EU-UK relations for the foreseeable future and will blight the Irish-British relationship as well.