As Britain prepares for a new leader, tensions with allies loom

Conservative leadership candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss attending a hustings event in London, on Aug 31, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON - Three weeks after Liz Truss became Britain's top diplomat in 2021, she told a Conservative Party conference that her country need not compete for the affection of the United States.

Britons, she said, should not worry "like some teenage girl at a party if we're not considered to be good enough". Her line drew laughs, but little more than that, at a meeting dominated by the flamboyant figure of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Now, though, Johnson is on his way out and Truss is the front-runner in the contest to replace him, making such provocative comments a potential clue to future policy.

Should Truss emerge victorious in a party vote that will be announced on Monday, she will have a chance to flesh out the vision of a Global Britain that Johnson unveiled after the country left the European Union two years ago.

Based on her record as foreign secretary, diplomats and analysts in London and Washington said, relations could get bumpier with the US and, even more so, with Europe.

Tensions between London and Brussels have already flared over legislation introduced by Truss that would upend the post-Brexit trade arrangements in Northern Ireland. She has vowed to push the new law through Parliament, stoking fears that it could trigger a trade war across the English Channel.

The Biden administration is keeping close watch, anxious that the dispute could threaten a quarter-century of peace in Northern Ireland secured by the Good Friday Agreement. US President Joe Biden has asked aides to pass along his concern about the negotiations between Britain and the European Union over the trade rules.

"We're going to trundle along in a pretty bad place" in part because "she's going to keep playing to the peanut gallery of those who are deeply committed to Brexit," said Leslie Vinjamuri, the director of the US and Americas programme at Chatham House, the British research institution.

"There is a swath of Britain that doesn't like being dependent on the United States or the European Union," Vinjamuri said. "She is completely aligned with a vision of Britain being global, strong, sovereign and, most of all, independent."

Her Brexit-inflected message has helped Truss pile up a commanding lead in the polls over her opponent, Rishi Sunak.

Waning support at home

But two recent popularity polls showed that support for Truss is already waning among the British electorate even before her expected appointment as prime minister next week.

Only 12 per cent of Britons expect Truss to be a good or great leader, while 52 per cent expect her to be poor or terrible, according to YouGov.

Britons are split on whether she would be a better prime minister than predecessor Boris Johnson, but tend to think she would be worse than every other premier going back to Margaret Thatcher.

Polling by Opinium for Sunday's Observer newspaper showed that 31 per cent of people who voted Conservative in the 2019 landslide election win thought Truss looked like "a prime minister in waiting" at the end of August, compared with 49 per cent at the beginning of the month.

The decline was broadly similar when Britons were asked whether Truss, currently foreign secretary, was competent or likeable.

The polls reinforce how damaging the leadership debates have been for Truss and her rival Sunak, as well as for the ruling Conservative Party.

With inflation soaring and the country heading into recession, the government has yet to come up with any solution to the biggest cost-of-living crisis in decades.

Much of Truss's rhetoric on the hustings has focused on cutting taxes and criticising the notion of government "handouts", both topics designed to appeal to the 160,000 or so party members who have been voting for Johnson's replacement.

Regarding Johnson, only 22 per cent of Britons consider his legacy as leader to be good or great, with 55 per cent assessing his time in charge as poor or terrible, according to YouGov.

In a general survey of voting intention, Opinium said the Tories had narrowed the gap with Labour to four points since mid-August. NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.