Mujtaba Rahman is the head of Eurasia Group’s Europe practice and the author of POLITICO’s Beyond the Bubble column. He tweets at @Mij_Europe.
LONDON — By appointing British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss as his point person on Brexit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has handed one of his most prominent potential challengers one of his government’s trickiest problems. Truss’s task will now be to avoid a trade war by reaching a deal with Brussels on the vexed Northern Ireland protocol, while keeping an increasingly unhappy but influential Euroskeptic wing of her ruling Conservative Party on board.
Conventional wisdom holds that Truss will be keen to continue the confrontational approach of her predecessor David Frost, who resigned over the weekend due to concerns that Johnson was turning soft on the European Union. And indeed, if Truss is to run for the leadership one day — and she does not hide that ambition — she will need the support of right-wing party members who hold a dim view of the EU.
And yet, there are reasons to believe she may prove to be a more pragmatic and sensible voice on Europe than Frost. Truss’s ambition to party leadership could actually favor a deal, as she will want to show that — in contrast to Johnson or Frost — she is capable of getting things done.
Truss doesn’t just need the support of the Euroskeptics alone, she also needs the majority of Tory MPs who wouldn’t forgive her if she triggers a trade war. There are signs that Johnson does not want to pursue Frost’s demand to remove the European Court of Justice from its role in disputes over the protocol as well.
Indeed, it’s not from the right that Truss is most threatened. In any leadership contest next year, only Home Secretary Priti Patel would likely run on a more right-wing Euroskeptic platform. But it’s unlikely Patel is competitive, her star in Westminster fallen having failed to stop migrants crossing the English Channel and deliver the cuts in immigration numbers she has touted.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak would likely focus his campaign on his economic credentials. And while Nadhim Zahawi, the secretary of state for education, and Sajid Javid, the health secretary, are also possible contenders for the premiership, the EU would likely be peripheral in their campaign. As one senior Tory in Westminster told me, “The risk is not as great for Truss as some claim. Where else can the Ultra’s [Euroskeptics] put their vote?”
A third reason to believe Truss may prove to be more constructive is to do with her other job. As foreign secretary, she oversees an institution that instinctively prefers deals over conflict. Her civil servants will be advising her that in the post-Brexit world, it is better for Britain to have friendly relations with the EU rather than not.
Smoother waters between London and Brussels would also serve the more hawkish strategic line toward Russia and China that Truss has adopted since moving into the role. As one senior Tory voice says: “If getting tough with the Russians and the Chinese is your most important strategic priority, then it will be important for her to sort out the issues with EU.” Senior U.K. officials also think that if Truss can reset the relationship with France, it could prove “a good feather in her hat” that facilitates U.K. goals in both Europe and further abroad.
It’s telling that Truss’s appointment has been greeted with cautious optimism on the other side of the Channel. Although Frost’s resignation came as a surprise to the EU side, the bottom line in Brussels and EU capitals is that “change and movement is good, as the negotiations were absolutely stuck with Frost,” according to one senior EU official. “The simple fact the interlocutor changes is a good thing,” says another.
That Truss wasn’t involved in either the divorce or future relationship negotiations is seen as a chance to turn over a new leaf. “She will bring no baggage to the relationship,” says a senior EU official close to the protocol negotiations. Her ambition to the party leadership, another senior EU voice speculated, will make better relations more likely: “Her measure of success will not be [to] prolong negotiations but to solve them.”