Long, long ago in a land far, far away, a person could only become leader of
a great nation by being a serious and responsible politician.
Now we have Liz Truss, who was recently trapped into insulting one of our greatest allies by the question: “President Macron, friend or foe?” Her answer, “the jury’s out”, delighted the audience. The laughter and applause
told you all you need to know about the xenophobic, paranoid gammons who are picking our next PM.
But the really shocking thing was not that the foreign secretary was willing to insult the president of France and undermine our relationship with one of
our closest allies for a cheap laugh. It is that the words themselves will have
been heard not just in Paris but also in Washington, Brussels, Berlin and everywhere else. The message is clear: this is not a serious politician who
understands foreign affairs – this is a Little Englander who plays to the crowd.
The US, in particular, will be watching her with special attention. When she was foreign secretary, she apparently questioned just how “special” the special relationship is, in a meeting with the US Secretary of State no less. This is, it seems, part of Truss’s “style”, undiplomatic, challenging, confrontational and blunt.
I imagine she thinks that she is a tough, honest, speak-as-I-find, negotiator. Many rude, bullying and incompetent people think the same about their behaviour, and don’t have the sense to see themselves as others see them. Our new PM apparently believes she is a big player on the world stage and people should do as she says. The reality of the UK’s position in the world and who the real big cheeses are is going to come as a shock, which is strange because as foreign secretary she should have been able to work this
one out for herself.
Liz Truss, it seems, plans to make one of her first jobs as PM the launching of a “charm offensive” to placate President Biden and put his mind at rest over the Northern Ireland Protocol. This pours insult on injury. Her past relationship with Washington has been far from charming and the US is far more interested in actions than words. The American foreign service is not stupid, the state department is well staffed and qualified, and the president
takes a deep interest in Ireland and the UK’s relationship with it.
They know full well that Truss is forcing through the Northern Ireland Protocol bill in an attempt to destroy the current deal with the EU, which
prevents a border on the island of Ireland. They also know she is doing this not because the people of Northern Ireland, or the businesses of NI want it
(they don’t), but because the zealots and swivel-eyed loons in her party demand it. She is willing to kowtow to their every wish, even if that means
tearing up the whole trade and cooperation deal negotiated by her government with the EU.
Now, it seems she is planning to go even further and that, once she’s in No 10, Truss intends to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
There is a faint chance this is a cunning plan, because while the Brexit ultras’ deepest fantasy is that Article 16 tears up the protocol, in fact it doesn’t do that at all. While it allows either side to take unilateral action if they believe the protocol is creating “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade”, the article also commits them to fresh talks to resolve the issues.
That is, however, an increasingly faint chance, because what Truss wants is not a rational discussion of any problems but a fight with the EU. Since her Northern Ireland Protocol bill is unlikely to become law until the end of the year, she sees Article 16 as a way to start the fight as soon as possible.
This is a patently cynical attempt to destroy the Northern Ireland Protocol and break international law. It would breach a deal that was negotiated and
signed by her government in good faith and that was supported by her in parliament, along with her cabinet and her MPs. The deal then became the
focus of a successful election campaign.
The consequences are likely to be dire. The EU tends to work slowly but remorselessly towards its objectives, in this case the preservation of the
Northern Ireland Protocol and the protection of the single market. It will
not start a trade war on day one but will increase the temperature bit by bit. It will hope that a Conservative government in the middle of a recession and an energy crisis will not want to make things worse by disrupting trade with its largest market, but it could be wrong in that assumption. If Truss is willing enough to insult France now for a cheap laugh, she may think blaming the French or the EU for the coming recession is the ace up her sleeve.
We can only hope that common sense prevails and she backs down before too much economic damage is done, but the legal and reputational damage for the UK is already huge and getting worse.
That is because tearing up the Northern Ireland Protocol is an obvious and shameless breach of international law. We know it, the EU knows it, Washington knows it and now we know that China knows it, too.
On the 25th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China, Boris Johnson tweeted that “25 years ago we made a promise to the people of Hong
Kong. We are determined to keep it.” For good measure he added: “Beijing has been failing to comply with its obligations.”
The Chinese Embassy in Dublin could not resist an open goal and tweeted back: “Two years ago we made a promise to the Northern Ireland Protocol. We are determined to break it.” When you can be trolled by the Chinese Embassy in Dublin, you know you have reached an all-time low.
Johnson and Truss also still seem to think that their criticisms of Russia for
its breaches of international law by invading Ukraine carry significant weight. Yet they are also preparing for the UK to break the law. It is difficult to occupy the moral high ground when you are a hypocrite.
This is why keeping your word, obeying the law and honouring your commitments all matter. If you don’t you lose the moral and political authority to criticise far worse actions by others.
Meanwhile, Truss will doubtless be preparing her best simpering style for
that meeting with President Biden. She will have to persuade the leader of the free world that she is a serious, honest and reliable ally, while also telling him she intends to tear up a deal the White House regards as essential to the future of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
I am sure we all wish her the best of luck with that and let’s face it, the trip will be considerably easier than her first one to Paris.