When asked earlier this week to list the top three domestic policy achievements of her six years and five jobs in Cabinet, Liz Truss tried hard to burnish her Brexit credentials.
The Foreign Secretary hailed her controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which rips up the infamous Protocol, the part of Boris Johnson’s 2020 Brexit deal with Brussels that allowed Northern Ireland to stay in the EU single market while keeping an open border with Ireland.
The legislation would give ministers the power to unilaterally override the Protocol and to reduce checks on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, checks that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) say are a threat to the Good Friday agreement that keeps peace in the region.
“Getting the support of that bill in Parliament” was proof that she could deliver in Government, she said. “Lots of people said it would be impossible, that Parliament wouldn’t support it. They made claims it was illegal, but it’s not illegal.”
Warming to her theme, she added: “I will proceed with the Bill…I’ve always been clear that I would rather get a negotiated agreement with the EU, but I think we’ve learned from history there is only one thing the EU understands – and that is strength. And I’m strong enough to make this happen.” The audience at the Tory hustings in Exeter applauded loudly.
However, it’s worth looking at the facts rather than the rhetoric. When Truss said that she had got “the support of Parliament” for the bill, that wasn’t exactly right. It’s true that it passed its Third Reading in the Commons just before recess, but the more ominous fact was the significant number of Tory MPs who abstained (just 257 out of 357 Conservatives voted).
That was itself a reminder of Theresa May’s withering denunciation of the bill at its Second Reading in June. Back then, Truss had responded to those pointing to her Remainer past by saying that she was pushing the bill “because I’m a patriot and I’m a democrat”. To which May retorted: “As a patriot, I would not want to do anything that would diminish this country in the eyes of the world…I cannot support it.”
May said the bill was not legal under international law, and that is almost certainly likely to be the view of the House of Lords. Far from having “the support of Parliament”, the legislation could well get bogged down as peers try to amend it or delay its passage.
While most MPs will want to give a new PM a fair wind, those abstainers may feel emboldened by the Lords. “Law makers can’t be law-breakers” may again be the charge against No 10. So instead of being the “achievement” Truss has claimed, the bill is at best a work in progress, and fraught with uncertainty.
Even if the bill does get eventually passed, will it prove a mere negotiating tool in the UK’s attempt to “fix” the problems with the Protocol? Well, Brussels so far seems to think this legislation is not a sign of strength but of desperation from a party that signed up to the deal it now dislikes. The bill has worsened, not improved, conditions for pragmatic fixes.
And the real unknown here is just how much Truss herself can prove to be a pragmatist. It’s worth remembering that when she first replaced David Frost as the lead negotiator on the Protocol, Brussels saw her as a breath of fresh air.
Early on, Truss appeared to have gained a similar reputation to Michael Gove, who had managed the give-and-take of talks with counterpart Maros Sefcovic with some progress. Gove had labelled “Big Maros” the “sausage king” after they agreed a deal to keep British bangers coming into Northern Ireland unhindered.
That era of pragmatism – Sefcovic was seen as less strident and more pro-UK than predecessor Michel Barnier – ended abruptly with Frost’s appointment in early 2021. Frost, who had negotiated the Protocol himself, sparked anger in Brussels by unilaterally extending grace periods on customs checks on British goods being exported to Northern Ireland.
But when Frost quit Johnson’s Government last year, relations became, aptly enough, less frosty. Truss’s January meeting with Sefcovic at the Foreign Secretary’s country house of Chevening went well. She is understood to have impressed the EU team with her interpersonal skills, and crucially saw existing EU offers of tweaks to the Protocol as grounds for progress.
The policy of hard-headed engagement had echoes of the other, more solid achievement that Truss mentioned in Exeter: the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe by Iran, something that had eluded several other Foreign Secretaries.
Yet pressure from hardline Brexiteers became intense. Frost damned with faint praise, saying her “warm” words had led to “no more progress really than we made last year”. “On the Protocol issue, I think she has found what I found,” Frost said. “Whether the words from the UK are warm or not warm, and whatever our posture, EU interests remain as they are.”
And as the prospect of becoming Tory leader hoved into view, Truss hardened her stance. Drafting, then pushing her Northern Ireland Protocol Bill through the Commons was key to winning support from the European Research Group (ERG) of MPs.
Given she will have a lot more on her plate as PM, there is now even chatter that Truss could bring back Frost. Yet I wonder whether she may quietly and slowly revert to her initial policy of constructive engagement, getting someone else to work behind the scenes to find a way through that both sides can live with. It would require a hard sell to the ERG, and to the DUP, but the prize would be huge.
As well as appearing grown up on the sensitive issues of peace in Ulster and on finding practical solutions, that prize would include defusing Brexit itself as an issue at the next election. Conversely, voters who don’t know or care about the minutiae of the Northern Ireland issue may be mightily angry if a trade war with Brussels means even higher prices.
“Getting Brexit done” would be a much stronger sell to Red Wall voters than ongoing rows which make a Tory Government look like an incompetent rabble that disowned a Brexit deal they themselves signed. Many voters would prefer their PM to be fixing the NHS and “levelling up” than getting distracted by arguments they thought settled in 2019.
Tory leaders in recent years have tried to dangle more red meat to the Brexit wing of their party, only to see their arms bitten off in the process. Cameron thought a referendum was a smart idea, May thought “Brexit means Brexit” would work and Johnson thought his “oven ready” deal was palatable. Truss could yet surprise everyone with hard-headed pragmatism, but right now few would bet on it.