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CWA # 787, 11 September 2022

The Big Picture
The UK: Domestic, regional and global challenges to the new Prime Minister

  Sourina Bej

Sourina Bej


On 6 September, Boris Johnson bid farewell to his three years tenure as the UK’s Prime Minister and paved the path for Liz Truss, his former foreign secretary. On 5 September, in a close call, the UK conservative party chose Liz Truss to replace Boris Johnson for the next two years. Boris Johnson leaves behind a legacy to “get BREXIT done” yet his means to the withdrawal agreement leaves deep-rooted irrevocable impacts for the new prime minister. What are the challenges before Liz Truss as she begins her maiden tenure as the UK’s next Prime Minister?

Domestic Challenges

Deep electoral divisions, coalition politics and splits within conservatives

Since the 2016 referendum, the British voting pattern had remained polarized between the nationalist and the unionist voters. This great divide was reflected along partisan lines such as the nationalists swinged for the political conservative right while the unionists voted for the political left. However, this faultline further deepened during Johnson’s period, when he periodically evoked partisan loyalty to get policy support and the resultant has been further divisions in loyalty and fragmentation within the conservative party. Under Johnson, voters were further disconnected from the grand old political parties, thus forcing the conservatives to forge a coalition with both nationalist and unionist voters who were not left-wing supporters.

Uniting the conservative party will be a political challenge for Liz Truss and she has shown her steadfast motivation by choosing a multi-ethnically represented cabinet.

Furthermore, a culture of executive centralism revived by Johnson, is yet to transition under Liz Truss. With a coterie-style of governance, Johnson revived authoritarian populism and put several committees and strategy units under direct leadership of a few cabinet members. In choosing a strong cabinet, Truss has already shown her dependence on it for all pressing matters and she will in all likelihood have to tread a balance between authoritarian management and democratic accountability.

The BREXIT economic maze to war-triggered energy crisis

As Johnson prepared to take the country out of the economic bloc, he failed to fully make his domestic market resilient to the aftershocks from the BREXIT. Rather in his final Prime Minister’s Questions session in the parliament, Johnson repeated a favorite refrain: Britain had the “fastest economic growth” among the G7. The Bank of England, today, projects that Britain will enter a recession before 2023, making it clear that Brexit may not have sunk the economy, but it was not opportune as well. In addition, the war in the Ukraine has deeply impacted the energy trade pushing the prices in the summer months. Households in the UK, today, are bracing for the energy price cap to rise by 80 per cent from October, after Ofgem, the industry regulator, confirmed the move at the end of last month.

On 6 September, the BBC has reported that Truss plans to spend up to $150 billion on freezing energy bills for the next 18 months, by offering loans to energy companies.

However, what has not featured in Truss’s campaign policy are impact packages for the those affected disproportionally such as the poorer households, who typically spend a larger share of their income on basic essentials.

Healthcare and post COVID crisis

The cumulative impact from the inflations and lack of welfare fiscal packages to pump in more liquid assets in the hands of the people has been unemployment, strikes and the systemic breakdown of essential services such as the healthcare. Waiting times to receive health care are at their longest in recent history in the whole of the UK. This is in part because of the pandemic putting the National Health Service under greater strain, but it is also because of staff shortages and insufficient funding. For Truss, it would be imperative to consider a national health package to ease the funding crunch and ensure return of staffers to ease the workforce pressure.

Regional Challenges

Revival of ethnonationalist tensions in Northern Ireland

As much as BREXIT stoked questions on the power sharing dynamics in the Northern Ireland, it was Johnson’s way of sidelining the NI protocol and trying to substitute it with a domestic legislation that alienated the pro-British unionist community. The unionist versus nationalist faultline in the Northern Ireland, rendered acute by the BREXIT referendum vote, was more divided with Johnson’s constant tinkering with clauses agreed with the EU. The unionists who largely supported the BREXIT are now conservative sceptics. The next challenge for Liz Truss will be her policy stand over the Northern Ireland. Talks with the EU have halted and the bill has been heavily campaigned by Liz Truss as a foreign secretary. The Democratic Unionist Party in NI has refused to return to its power-sharing arrangement at Stormont until the protocol is changed. The key date for Liz Truss to remember will be 28 October when the deadline to restore the government at Stormont ends. In addition, on 16 September, the UK will have to respond to the legal charges brought by Brussels and Truss’s hardline approach on the matter could probably volte face.

The question over Scottish referendum

The question over Scottish referendum could strengthen under Liz Truss. At a time when Nicola Sturgeon is pressing for another independence referendum, the new government will need to seek a political arrangement on the same. In October 2022, the UK Supreme Court will consider whether Holyrood has the power to hold the referendum without Westminster's consent but with recent hard line campaign by Liz Truss, the relation between the two leaders have soured. “I feel like I’m a child of the union, I really believe we’re a family and we’re better together and I think the best thing to do with Nicola Sturgeon is ignore her,” said Truss in her election campaign statement. Her hawkish views on both Northern Ireland and the referendum in Scotland could mean further alienation and not mitigating the ethnonationalist challenges.

External Challenges

Support for Ukraine

Truss has pledged to boost defense spending to three per cent of GDP, which the analyst group the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) estimated will cost an additional $180 billion. Like Johnson, she has also decided to continue giving military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Britain has so far pledged around $3.8 billion. Under Johnson, Britain was an early and strong supporter of Ukraine’s efforts to resist Russia’s invasion. Truss, as foreign secretary, stood squarely behind Johnson’s Ukraine policy, supporting the transfer of heavy weaponry to Kyiv among other measures. In all likelihood, a policy of ‘strategic voice’ for Ukraine will strengthen under Liz Truss, at a time when the EU’s united front is oscillating between appeasement for gas and sanctions.

Hawkish views on China, Russia

The support for Ukraine is equally balanced by Truss’s hawkish view on Russia. She has since being a foreign secretary regarded the 2014-15 Minsk accords as a “totemic mistake.” Furthermore, in a big symbolic gesture, Truss’s staff had briefed The Times last week that she would officially declare China a national security “threat” after entering Downing Street. Truss’s hawkishness on China applies to military as well as economic issues. She was closely involved in the decision to ban Chinese telecoms firm Huawei from involvement in Britain’s 5G network, over national security concerns.

Relation with EU

Ending the distrust with the EU, one of the UK’s biggest trading partner, could be a challenge for Liz Truss. As she assumed office, the EU leaders have subterfuge their concern over a strong Eurosceptic as a leader. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission chief, tweeted that the UK and EU were partners, facing current challenges together - but that she hoped as prime minister, Liz Truss would be "constructive", respecting agreements previously reached between the two sides.

The reason for a better relation with the EU could probably ease its internal inflation. Despite BREXIT, the impacts from the EU has never ceased. When Germany is attempting to find alternatives to Russian energy, and bids aggressively for Norwegian gas - a source the UK already relies on – it has affected the prices, and potentially will further impact supply routes as well. Next, concerns over migration remains. As foreign secretary, Liz Truss promised to be “robust” with the French authorities to stop the rising number of refugees and other migrants trying to reach the UK across the English Channel. Yet in her electoral campaign, she has never chose to soothe her stand on the Anglo-French relation.

Transatlantic partnership

As Liz Truss assumes office, the US President Joe Biden in his congratulatory message also stressed the importance of reaching an agreement with the EU over post-Brexit legislation on Northern Ireland. The transatlantic partnership could be strained if Liz Truss pushes ahead with the legislation altering the Norther Ireland Protocol and for the US president proud of his Irish roots, treading the diplomatic show will be keenly watched.


About the author

Sourina Bej is a doctoral candidate and KAS-EIZ fellow at the University of Bonn.

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