Will Liz Truss Be Remembered As A Blair or As A Thatcher? | Opinion

Liz Truss is the United Kingdom's new prime minister. But beyond the fanfare and the celebrations lurk the challenges of the new post. Brexit is going to be the main one, with Northern Ireland as its most difficult issue.

The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, currently in the House of Lords, has already been denounced for its incompatibility with international law. As foreign secretary, Truss put all her weight behind it, leaving no room for flexibility or negotiation. On the contrary, during the Tories' primaries she went a step further by vowing she would be ready to resort to article 16 of the Brexit deal, in essence denouncing the agreement reached with the European Union. An interesting rupture from the legacy bequeathed by Boris Johnson, but equally a risky gamble for the new prime minister.

Surely it is in Liz Truss' interests to set from the beginning a dynamic tone vis-a-vis her European counterparts. The lessons of Theresa May's Brexit negotiations are still fresh in memory. Truss should strive to signal that she can be a new Thatcher, ready if needed to go to war to protect Britain's interests. Whereas the war in the 1980s was a physical one in the Falklands, this time it is economic, and closer to home.

Of course, times have changed since the '80s. The United Kingdom does not necessarily enjoy the same leverage in the international arena it did in the past. Brexit already made the country lose for the first time its judge in the International Court of Justice, and the cohesion of the Commonwealth is constantly put into doubt, as Prince William's Caribbean visit showed this year. If the United Kingdom wants to continue serving as a major economic and political player, it has to be more flexible.

PM Liz Truss
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 06: Former Foreign Secretary Liz Truss addresses the media outside number 10 after becoming the new Prime Minister at Downing Street on September 06, 2022 in London, England. The new prime minister assumes her role at Number 10 Downing Street after defeating fellow Conservative Rishi Sunak in the contest for party leader. Leon Neal/Getty Images

This flexibility should not be a loose, a la carte interpretation of international law as Truss proposes through the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, but an openness towards the European Union as a trading and political partner. In other words, negotiation and not collision is the way for the new British government to go. Truss is right that a customs border cannot be maintained in the midst of the Irish sea, but more inventive solutions can be found, like retaining Northern Ireland inside the European Union with the rest of the United Kingdom out, in a reverse Greenland-Denmark model.

Truss has signaled so far that she is not considering this option. Nevertheless, a possible collision course with the European Union will leave the United Kingdom no choice but to embrace the United States. The question is on whose terms. During her campaign Truss announced she will engage in a charm offensive towards U.S. officials once elected as the new resident of Downing Street. This charm offensive entails a need for the new U.K. government to "sell" a message to the U.S. administration in order to garner the latter's support. The U.S. may indeed become open to such calls but not without a price for British diplomacy. If Truss wants President Joe Biden to offer sympathy for the United Kingdom's political woes, she must be ready to cooperate with the U.S. international agenda.

This means the United Kingdom becoming a back-up policy player for U.S. interests rather than an autonomous major player with its own international relations agenda. On issues like the Russia-Ukraine war, climate change, and civil rights, London will be expected to align with Washington's preferred initiatives. Whereas this may not currently be a concern, it may soon prove problematic with a change of leadership on either side of the Atlantic or if the U.S. engages in a major military operation abroad. Tony Blair's decision to join the U.S. in the second Iraq war is still seen by many as the United Kingdom being dragged into a conflict that the American allies drafted and decided. By choosing to alienate the European Union, Truss runs the danger of turning the U.K. into a vessel for U.S. foreign policy. On a personal level, she runs the risk of being remembered more as a Blair than as a Thatcher.

Dr. Solon Solomon is Lecturer in the Brunel University London School of Law and co-Director of the BUL International Law Group.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.