Britain’s New PM: Foreign Policy Hawk Facing Challenges at Home

Liz Truss officially became Britain’s prime minister Tuesday, replacing Boris Johnson, who resigned in July.

In a private meeting Tuesday in Balmoral, Scotland, with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, Truss was asked to form a new government. The meeting, a formality, took place in Scotland as the 96-year-old monarch is not able to travel to London due to health problems.

Truss is the 15th prime minister to be appointed by Elizabeth, and the fourth Conservative party leader in just seven years – an indication of the monarch’s longevity and recent chaos in Britain’s politics. Truss’s meeting took place hours after Johnson traveled to Scotland to meet with the monarch.

Truss later flew back to London. In the evening, she outlined the government’s priorities in a televised address outside the prime minister’s residence at No. 10 Downing Street.

Energy crisis

Truss served as foreign secretary under Johnson. She is seen as a foreign policy hawk and has pledged a tough line against countries like Russia and China.

“We now face severe global headwinds caused by Russia’s appalling war in Ukraine and the aftermath of COVID. … United with our allies, we will stand up for freedom and democracy around the world,” Truss said.

Truss, however, also faces challenges at home.

She pledges to help Britons survive an energy crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine, as gas and electricity prices are predicted to rise as much as eight-fold in coming months.

“I will deal hands on with the energy crisis caused by Putin’s war,” Truss said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The BBC reported Tuesday that Truss plans to spend up to $150 billion on freezing energy bills for the next 18 months, by offering loans to energy companies. Further details are expected later this week.

Any political honeymoon will likely be short-lived, says analyst John Kampfner of London-based research group Chatham House.

“Ninety percent of her time is going to have to be dealing with the here and now on the domestic agenda – with an economy in crisis, strikes, health service (in crisis), huge energy bills, potential social unrest,” Kampfner told VOA.

Despite the cost of dealing with the energy crisis, Truss has promised to cut taxes.

Ukraine

Truss has also pledged to boost defense spending to 3% of GDP, which the analyst group the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) estimated will cost an additional $180 billion. Meanwhile, she has pledged to continue giving military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Britain has so far pledged around $3.8 billion.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who made no secret of his desire for Boris Johnson to stay in power, welcomed the appointment of Truss as Britain’s prime minister.

“In Ukraine, we know her well. She was always on the enlightened side of European politics. I believe that together, we will be able to do much more for the protection of our nations and to ensure the failure of Russia’s destructive efforts,” Zelenskyy said in a video posted online Tuesday.

Ukraine’s military has strong public support in Britain, according to analyst Kampfner.

“There’s every reason — notwithstanding the energy price rises and all the other challenges that Liz Truss faces — that she will absolutely continue the Johnson approach, and we can expect an early visit to get a photo op with Zelenskyy in the Ukrainian capital pretty soon,” Kampfner said.

China

As a government minister, Truss took a hawkish stance on China. She was closely involved in the decision to ban Chinese telecoms firm Huawei from involvement in Britain’s 5G network, over national security concerns.

“Liz Truss is a more hawkish person than Boris Johnson, the former prime minister,” Neil Melvin of the Royal United Services Institute told The Associated Press. “She has, for example, committed to increasing the threat perception of China. So, China will be recognized under her premiership, she’s indicated, as a threat to the U.K.”

Europe

Truss has also pledged to push through legislation overriding the Northern Ireland protocol, a key Brexit agreement that Johnson signed with the European Union that prevented the need for a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which many fear would have reignited sectarian violence. The European Union has started legal proceedings against the British government, notes Kampfner.

“The worst-case scenario is a full-blooded trade war between — can you imagine — between the 27 European nations and Britain. In every respect, that will be a disaster, it will add fuel to the fire of an already pretty terrible U.K. economy,” he said.

Special relationship

U.S. President Joe Biden congratulated Truss via Twitter Tuesday. “I look forward to deepening the special relationship between our countries and working in close cooperation on global challenges, including continued support for Ukraine as it defends itself against Russian aggression,” Biden wrote.

The special relationship is clouded by lingering tensions over Brexit, according to Kampfner.

“The Americans and particularly the Biden administration are incredibly wary of having to choose between the Brits and the European Union. They regard it as a false choice.”

Early election?

The next British election is due by December 2024. Truss was elected by just over 81,000 Conservative party members, a tiny fraction of the overall electorate. Truss, however, is not likely to seek a fresh mandate from the public through an early election, said Alan Wager of the U.K. in a Changing Europe program at Kings College London.

“The Conservative party is at the lowest level of polling they’ve been for over a decade. So that makes a general election extremely unlikely — because the vast majority of the public want one. The new prime minister will do anything to avoid facing the electorate right now,” Wager told VOA.

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