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Liz Truss Is Ready to Flex London’s Muscles Abroad

Britain’s likely next prime minister is a foreign-policy hard-liner.

By , a British-French journalist and the author of This Is London and Fragile Empire.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speak during a G-7 foreign ministers' summit in Liverpool, England, on Dec. 12, 2021.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speak during a G-7 foreign ministers' summit in Liverpool, England, on Dec. 12, 2021.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speak during a G-7 foreign ministers' summit in Liverpool, England, on Dec. 12, 2021. ANTHONY DEVLIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is on the verge of becoming Britain’s next prime minister. Truss’s political journey has been a tangled one. A former student Liberal Democrat, anti-monarchist, and campaigner for legalized cannabis, she became a David Cameron loyalist and firm Remainer in the Brexit campaign. A disastrous speech on pork in 2014 got her widely mocked. But now the much-photographed face of the post-Brexit foreign policy that the government dubs “Global Britain” is not only endorsed by the hard-right Daily Mail but seen by the most radical Leavers as a champion of their cause.

It would be easy to make one of two mistakes about Truss: either she doesn’t believe in anything or she believes everything she’s saying at any one time. But, according to Westminster sources I spoke to, she’s a more complicated mix of chameleon politics over a solid framework of belief—especially on geopolitics.

As foreign secretary, her worldview has been deeply shaped by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Truss would be the continuity-plus candidate for the foreign policy promoted by outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson—and extremely active in promoting it. She was fully behind Johnson as he embraced a form of muscular Atlanticism toward Russia and China: sending heavy weapons to Ukraine early on, positioning London as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s closest partner, heartily increasing U.K. defense spending, standing up for Hong Kong with a generous visa offer, and seeking to bolster Britain’s role in the Indo-Pacific with the AUKUS pact, in partnership with the United States and Australia, while beginning to disentangle the U.K. from Beijing on sensitive matters such as Huawei’s 5G technology.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is on the verge of becoming Britain’s next prime minister. Truss’s political journey has been a tangled one. A former student Liberal Democrat, anti-monarchist, and campaigner for legalized cannabis, she became a David Cameron loyalist and firm Remainer in the Brexit campaign. A disastrous speech on pork in 2014 got her widely mocked. But now the much-photographed face of the post-Brexit foreign policy that the government dubs “Global Britain” is not only endorsed by the hard-right Daily Mail but seen by the most radical Leavers as a champion of their cause.

It would be easy to make one of two mistakes about Truss: either she doesn’t believe in anything or she believes everything she’s saying at any one time. But, according to Westminster sources I spoke to, she’s a more complicated mix of chameleon politics over a solid framework of belief—especially on geopolitics.

As foreign secretary, her worldview has been deeply shaped by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Truss would be the continuity-plus candidate for the foreign policy promoted by outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson—and extremely active in promoting it. She was fully behind Johnson as he embraced a form of muscular Atlanticism toward Russia and China: sending heavy weapons to Ukraine early on, positioning London as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s closest partner, heartily increasing U.K. defense spending, standing up for Hong Kong with a generous visa offer, and seeking to bolster Britain’s role in the Indo-Pacific with the AUKUS pact, in partnership with the United States and Australia, while beginning to disentangle the U.K. from Beijing on sensitive matters such as Huawei’s 5G technology.

Truss sees the world in more black and white than Johnson and has a taste for even greater action on the world stage after being foreign secretary during a European war. She not only shares Johnson’s risk appetite—evidenced by her support in sending heavy weapons early to Ukraine—but exceeds it. This has made her popular with Zelensky’s government, according to British and Ukrainian diplomats I spoke to, and she is frequently saluted on Twitter by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who calls her a “friend.” Truss now wants to be tougher.

That’s most visible on China, where she has broken with her former boss Cameron’s defense cuts and pursuit of a “golden era” with Chinese President Xi Jinping. As the Conservative Party leadership campaign got going, Truss accused her rival Rishi Sunak of seeking “seeking closer economic relations“ with China, forcing the former chancellor to pivot into a more hawkish position to keep up with her.

Truss is widely expected by allies in government to be more hard-line on Beijing than Johnson, who hoped the economic dialogue and relationship could continue somewhat insulated from geopolitics. According to sources I spoke to, she simply doesn’t believe that is possible and hopes to be more resistant to the Treasury view that Britain should not seek to damage economic ties with the world’s largest exporter than either her predecessor or Sunak. Truss sees the world primarily in terms of geopolitical competition, not trade, the environment, or development. A key point to watch out for is how far she goes in labeling China’s treatment of Uyghurs in its Xinjiang region a genocide—which is what she has reportedly called it.

There would be a noticeable shift when it comes to Britain’s allies, too. Truss, according to government insiders, is more American than the Americans, waiting for a firmer lead from Washington in practically every department. This is similar to Johnson, but with the difference that she would be more willing to speak frankly to the White House. Having Truss as prime minister would be unusual for Washington because it would mean finally getting the ally it’s always claimed it’s wanted: tough on China, raising defense spending, and calling for more action while being willing to help. Truss will always be looking for the Thatcher-Reagan solution. That may be tricky under U.S. President Joe Biden, whose own inclinations were more on show in the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan than in the necessary response to Russia’s war in Ukraine. On China, Truss would find closer alliances with hawkish Republican senators such as Marco Rubio than Johnson’s cautious approach did.

Officials in the European Commission are pessimistic about the future now that Truss is well on her way to Downing Street, pointing to her position on ties with the bloc over the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). But her record is more mixed. She began seeking to charm the European Union with a high-profile invite to European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, handling the dossier as foreign secretary only to essentially abandon negotiations with the bloc over Northern Ireland, either, depending on whom you ask, when she saw they were going nowhere or when she realized her route to Downing Street demanded she become a hard-liner. This burned many officials in Brussels and severely damaged their trust.

But there’s no evidence she agrees with the die-hard Brexiteers, such as Iain Duncan Smith, who want to see the bloc collapse. Not only does Truss, once a campaigner for Remain, understand that the EU matters in geopolitics; she views it as important in corralling the various European states into a democratic bloc. As prime minister, she would likely attend summits or events with the EU leadership, as she did as foreign secretary, if she thought she could gain something from it.

But for now her enthusiasm stops there. Take the recent, and as of yet rather poorly explained, French idea of a European Political Community. While Johnson was somewhat intrigued by the idea of a loose, nonbinding structure of European states including Ukraine—which would have access to EU summits and institutions and cooperate on security, geoeconomics, and defense—Truss has dismissed it, according to French and British officials I spoke to.

Britain, according to Truss, does not want to have more discussions in an EU-centered format without the United States—and figures that both G-7 and NATO already meet this need. Her view, increasingly shared in the Foreign Office, is that what Britain has been missing in recent years when it comes to European security is not consultative structures with the EU on foreign affairs but money and muscle on actual crises. Ukraine, she thinks, validates this. Johnson’s and her own activism proving there is no European security order without Britain being key. What mattered were the NLAW anti-tank weapons that Britain sent, not an extra phone call with EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell.

Truss intends neither to be aggressively hostile to the EU nor to go out of her way to flatter and repair relations with it, as a future Labour prime minister would certainly do. However, because of the dispute over the application of the NIP, which sees Northern Ireland remain under certain EU rules to ensure an open border between the north (part of the United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland, she cannot escape it. There are three factions in the Conservative Party when it comes to the NIP: a deal at any price, no deal ever, or a deal with the EU from a position of strength. Truss is firmly in the third camp.

But what does that mean? As it stands, the NIP bill currently wending its way through Parliament would give Westminster the power to stop applying key parts of the protocol under U.K. law if made statute. Brussels has warned that if this does happen, it will retaliate, potentially with trade sanctions, which could escalate into a trade war—even if the powers are never actually exercised. Truss has already tied her name to the bill.

As prime minister, she would likely try to compromise with the EU on the NIP from a position of strength—that is, her own—and point to the fact she won power with the support of the European Research Group (ERG) die-hards in her party to do so. Allies point to the fact that the bill can linger in the House of Lords for months while negotiations take place and that Conservative leaders typically disappoint the hard-right once they have taken control of the party.

The chief danger for her is that the EU simply refuses to cede any meaningful ground, as seems likely, believing her to be a weak prime minister and that after the next election a new Labour leader will be there and ready to accept its terms on this. But she may also have less room to maneuver on the NIP than she expected because of her rebellious party, which is unlikely to grow any happier as the economic pain bites, and her dependence in the leadership campaign on the ERG. This could put her in a very difficult position with trade retaliations in a savage economic climate.

Would Truss in that situation then seek to use a trade war with the EU as cover for the economic pain in general? This is a concern in Brussels, but not how most Conservative insiders I spoke to see it, who instead point to the fact that the NIP is of low salience in a leadership contest dominated by the economy and very low among general voters’ concerns—unlike Brexit itself was during the last election. There is space for a deal on the NIP. But that space is very small indeed. The EU will be looking to see if former chief negotiator David Frost is reappointed as a sign of willingness to talk.

But in the end Truss’s biggest enemy may be herself. Just like Johnson, she can be a disorganized politician who needs a very strong chief of staff to save her from embarrassing slip-ups and poorly chosen phrases, such as her recent U-turn on regional pay boards. Johnson was never able to find one. Truss simply cannot afford a weak team. The search is now on, and much will depend on it.

This is where Whitehall chatter about the likely next prime minister matters. On the negative side, she is blamed for a poor Foreign Office reorganization; has frequently spoken carelessly, such as confusing Russian and Ukrainian regions when talking to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov; and is prone to temporary favorites. On the positive side, she is seen as highly active. Downing Street has been a chaotic house under Johnson. If Truss wants to bring order back in, she will need a very strong team—or risk seeing her premiership dissolve into slogans amid a scandal-ridden government and a failing economy.

There is one thread tying together Truss’s various incarnations from Liberal Democrat to Remainer to candidate of the ERG: a willingness to say whatever she has to in order to get ahead. If she becomes leader, both the game and what she will have to say will change again. Her eyes will be on winning a national election in a country heading into 13 percent inflation and five quarters of recession, according to the Bank of England.

Her main battle will be the one at home. Constricting economic pressure will be making itself felt in Downing Street over the coming winter. Britain’s latest self-styled heir to Margaret Thatcher is unlikely to have as much time for foreign policy or economic space to stand up to either the EU over Northern Ireland or China over geopolitics as she might hope. That doesn’t mean she won’t at first try.

Ben Judah is a British-French journalist and the author of This Is London and Fragile Empire.

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