Today
Fri 28 January 2022

Sam Bright examines the record of the Foreign Secretary, as she eyes-up Boris Johnson’s throne

A war of succession has started in the Conservative Party, as MP and ministers begin to imagine the end of Boris Johnson’s tenure as Prime Minister.

Polls throughout the Christmas period showed a comfortable Labour lead over the Conservatives, with Johnson embroiled in a series of scandals involving sleaze and COVID rule-breaking. After winning an 80-seat majority in December 2019, the chances of a coup against Johnson before the next election seem increasingly likely.

One person hoping to benefit from Johnson’s demise is Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who has barely concealed her political ambitions in recent months – summoning the style and spirit of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in an attempt to court support among Conservative members.

Her plan seems to be working. The latest ConservativeHome survey of party members, released on 28 December, showed that Truss had the highest approval rating of any Cabinet minister – +73.5 – a position that she has retained for months. Johnson, by contrast, logged the lowest approval rating in the Cabinet, of -33.8.

A former Liberal Democrat who backed the Remain campaign in 2016, Truss has reformed her image in the Johnson era – adopting the Brexit cause and blending it with a vocal ‘free market’ ethos, building close relationships with the libertarian think tanks that occupy Tufton Street.

In her role as International Trade Secretary, which she held from July 2019 to September 2021, Truss was the embodiment of Brexit – the person tasked with negotiating and signing the trade deals that supposedly underpin Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ project.

However, beneath the political perceptions, how effective has Truss been in her various roles in Government?

Truss has gained plaudits among Vote Leave advocates for her post-Brexit optimism, but the fruits of her labour don’t match the rhetoric. This, to some extent, is down to the innate flaws of Brexit.

Truss and her predecessors were forced to sign roll-over agreements with countries that previously traded with the UK under EU deals. Roughly 70 of these agreements have been signed, and in effect they add nothing to UK trade – as they merely replicate conditions that we previously enjoyed within the EU. In fact, according to trade experts at the University of Sussex, these agreements are not perfect replicas and so have damaged trade slightly.

Indeed, former Shadow International Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry notably exposed Truss’ deceptive rhetoric over the UK’s post-Brexit trade deal with Japan. Truss claimed that the UK-Japan deal goes “far beyond” the pre-existing agreement between the EU and Japan, yet the Government’s own forecasts predicted that the EU-Japan deal had more economic benefits for the UK than the UK-Japan deal. The EU deal was projected to increase UK GDP by £2.6 billion, whereas the new deal is only projected to increase GDP by £1.5 billion over the same period.

“There hasn’t been a huge vision of how we will do things differently to the EU,” trade expert David Henig told Euro News, in reference to the Japan agreement.

Thus, Truss was tasked with signing brand new trade deals that were previously unavailable to the UK under the strictures of the EU. The two most prominent have been agreed with Australia and New Zealand, yet their impact on the UK economy is not expected to be transformative.

The Government estimates that the two agreements will increase GDP by between £200 million and £500 million annually – by 0.01% to 0.02% – or between £3 and £7 per head. These benefits will also only be seen after 15 years, when the agreements have been integrated into business practices and the functioning of the economy.

Meanwhile, a trade deal with the US is nowhere near being achieved – and Truss has refused to guarantee that the UK will strike a post-Brexit trade deal with the US by 2030. This is despite the Government – under the direction of Truss – publishing its negotiating objectives for a US deal in March 2020, following bold claims during the referendum and after that the UK would be able to sign extensive free trade agreements with the world’s largest economies.

“The sad answer is that the Government is happy to accept, on our behalf, the economic losses from Brexit in return for political benefits (sovereignty), and trade agreements with other countries are merely making the best of a bad job from an economic perspective,” observe trade academics L. Alan Winters and Guillermo Larbalestier.

Under her leadership, some MPs took to labelling the Department for International Trade as the ‘Department for Instagramming Truss,’ due to its focus on promoting the International Trade Secretary rather than achieving tangible results, according to Politico.

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Austerity and Ideology

This did not, however, prevent Liz Truss from achieving a promotion in Boris Johnson’s latest Cabinet reshuffle.

In September 2021, she was appointed Foreign Secretary – taking over from Dominic Raab, who was roundly criticised for his laboured response to the fall of Kabul in August last year. However, in her first few months in the role, Truss has endorsed decisions that will hamstring her department and its overseas work.

In her first week, Truss signed off drastic foreign aid cuts to war-torn states, while reducing funding on the environment and gender equality. Syria will receive £48 million in overseas aid this year, compared to £154 million last year. Yemen, still suffering from a civil war that began in 2014, will see its budget cut from £221 million to £82.4 million. It has been estimated that more than 80% of Yemenis now live below the poverty line and that half of the population face a clear and present danger of imminent famine.

In total, overseas aid to Commonwealth countries has been slashed by £500 million, despite claims made during the Brexit campaign that leaving the EU would strengthen our ties with its 53 member states. Indeed, in October 2019, Truss herself told Commonwealth ministers and high commissioners that “we can and must seize the opportunity Brexit presents to take advantage of new partnerships with some of our oldest allies across the Commonwealth”.

Truss also appears to be comfortable with austerity being applied within her new department. The Foreign Office is set to reduce its staff numbers by 20% in four years – which former Foreign Office Permanent Secretary Lord Ricketts has called “completely incompatible” with the Government’s rhetoric about ‘Global Britain’.

This mirrors Truss’s approach to public spending cuts in 2015 when, as Environment Secretary, she was one of the first ministers to accept the reduction in departmental funding proposed by then Chancellor George Osborne. Her department faced funding cuts of between 25% and 40%, but Truss insisted that it was “a big opportunity”. At the time, Guardian writer and environmental journalist George Monbiot described Truss as “impervious to argument, facts or experience”.

“I’m probably one of the more ideological among my colleagues… that’s what motivates me,” Truss told Politico last year, perhaps justifying Monbiot’s analysis.

What’s more, it doesn’t seem that Truss is immune to the sleaze stories that have plagued Johnson’s administration in recent times. It was revealed over the weekend that Truss insisted on hosting an official event at 5 Hertford Street, a private members’ club owned by a Conservative donor, against the advice of civil servants.

The event was held in June 2021, when Truss was International Trade Secretary. The venue agreed to reduce its bill from £3,000 to £1,400, on the condition of immediate payment – which could only be facilitated by an emergency process.

5 Hertford Street is owned by Robin Birley, a donor to Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign and the half-brother ofEnvironment Minister Zac Goldsmith. The club is renowned as a meeting place for elite Brexiters and has even played host to receptions organised by Truss, in preparation for a possible leadership bid, according to The Sunday Times.

The Department for International Trade was also forced to correct the expenses that had been spent by Truss and three of her staff on a four-night trip to Singapore and Vietnam in December 2020. Originally, the department said that no expenses had been logged, before admitting £4,000 worth of expenses and £1,600 of additional accommodation costs.

Posting on Twitter, Emily Thornberry said that she has never received an explanation for these additional costs. “Some will say it doesn’t matter,” she said. “But this is about character, and if Truss’s natural instinct is to hide the truth and hope no one asks questions when it comes to small things, don’t be surprised when she does it about big things.”

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