By Arab News
By Mohamed Chebaro*
If the new UK Prime Minister Liz Truss’s history is anything to go by, the country must brace for more uncertainties during her premiership. Her beginnings were on the left in the footsteps of her left-wing parents, then she joined the centrist Liberal Democrats and even called for the abolition of the monarchy. Next she jumped ship to the Conservative Party, firstly as a pro-European, before she metamorphosed into a Brexiteer, right-wing populist, who was elevated to the role of foreign secretary under Boris Johnson.
I would say that the UK must brace for what could be a costly storm unless the new PM, who is known for her pragmatism, changes and adopts a form of leadership that can put the country and its citizens first, with the Conservative Party and its right-wing, populist tribe behind her.
The UK as a nation has been standing at a crossroads since Brexit — not that anyone from the ruling Conservative party wants to admit it. Unless the new leader is ready to acknowledge the scale of the damage the divorce from the EU has dealt to the nation, its unity, its finances and its dented prosperity outlook, then her tenure as only the third woman to lead the country, after Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, might be cut short.
The 47-year-old has vowed “bold” action to fix the country’s worst economic crisis in more than 40 years and promised to deliver an electoral victory in 2024, without mentioning uniting either her party or the country. Instead, she seems to be staying true to the slogans she initially adopted during the leadership contest, including that she “campaigned as a Conservative and will govern as a Conservative.” She insists she will introduce tax cuts to stimulate growth and resolve the energy crisis through higher borrowing, even at the risk of stoking double-digit inflation.
Truss’s long-held belief in stimulating growth through tax cuts and borrowing could bring her down at the first hurdle, as taming the cost-of-living crisis might need in excess of £100 billion ($114 billion) at a time when the UK’s public debt stands at £2.4 trillion, which is 99.6 percent of its gross domestic product.
Since the start of her campaign, Truss has been trying to emulate Thatcher’s way of talking tough, adopting her doctrine of keeping the state small and the citizens responsible. She even dresses like the “Iron Lady.” All that is fine as long as she factors in that she also needs to stand tall as a leader and carve her policies out in a way that serves her country away from the fairy-tale economic situation and addresses reality as it is, not how certain tribes in her party imagine it to be.
Does Truss have what it takes to be the strong leader the country is craving? In her acceptance speech, she praised her predecessor Johnson as “someone admired from Kyiv to Carlisle.” But now that she is in the driving seat, her attention must be turned to healing the country’s divisions. A YouGov poll in late August found that 52 percent of Britons thought Truss would make a “poor” or “terrible” prime minister, while 43 percent said they did not trust her “at all” to remedy the cost-of-living crisis.
Truss has a unique opportunity to refrain from being a Johnson continuity PM and to work to re-instill a sense of decency in the Cabinet, which was lost under Johnson, and restore trust. She must present a functioning government that is able to get things done efficiently.
The next big thing Truss must do is abandon boosterism and sloganizing in her approach to mending relations with the French first and the rest of the EU later. Her dig at Emmanuel Macron that “the jury is out” on whether he is a friend or a foe showed her to be less of a statesperson than the leader of the UK should be. Aligning British interests with those of its European neighbors could serve to mend the fences that have fallen since the Brexit withdrawal agreement storm. If anything, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown that Europe’s liberal democracy and its peace and prosperity are at stake, and this applies not only to mainland Europe. The Russian leadership has singled out London as a target for retaliatory nuclear attacks by the Kremlin if the West continues to arm the Ukrainians — it did not mention Brussels or Paris in its threat.
Relations with the US are equally important, regardless of whether it is a Democrat or a Republican who is in office. This highlights the need to settle the problem of the Northern Ireland protocol amicably, rather than unilaterally abolish it and risk alienating President Joe Biden’s administration, which has often warned London about its duty to do everything possible to uphold the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the province.
Solid relationships with Europe and the US, as the UK’s true allies, will give more weight to Truss’s leadership and words when she talks tough on Russia or China, or when she reaches out to revive old partnerships or create new ones in pursuit of the post-Brexit brand of “Global Britain.”
After 12 years in power, many in Britain could be right when they write off the Conservatives, claiming that they have reached the end of the road. This is Truss’s chance. Her track record has shown her to be adaptable, in addition to having a sharp political instinct, as some who have worked with her have claimed. Some have even described her as a canny operator. All bets are currently stacked against her lasting long at the head of a divided Tory party and a divided if not totally broken Britain. Truss, unlike her idol Thatcher, who famously said she was “not for turning,” actually needs to U-turn on her campaign promises and confirm a massive support package, including handouts, and rule out tax cuts if she is to have a chance at leading her party to victory at the next general election.
• Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant, and trainer with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs, and diplomacy.