Another Truss U-turn required to bring UK out of economic doldrums

After the passing of Queen Elizabeth II on Sept 8, there was a huge outpouring of grief. This remarkable woman had reigned for over 70 years, longer than any other British monarch, and over 80 percent of Britons are said to have been born on her watch. Many of those paying tribute to her life and achievements said they would not see the like of her again, and her former prime ministers all held her in the highest regard.

The new prime minister, Liz Truss, was fulsome in her praise of the monarch she served for only two days, calling her “the rock on which modern Britain was built”. She called her “one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known”, and her words were well-received by a nation in need of comfort.

There was also high praise from Truss’ predecessors as prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, ardent monarchists all. Whereas Boris Johnson (2019-22) described the late queen as “Elizabeth the Great”, Theresa May (2016-2019) called her “the most remarkable person I have ever met”. While David Cameron (2010-2016) paid tribute to her “remarkable reign”, John Major (1990-1997) said she was “pragmatic and wise, with an unmistakable commitment to duty”.

Quite clearly, everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet, although it has now emerged that one of them is only a recent convert. Whereas the majority have supported the constitutional order throughout their political lives, Truss, as a recently located video shows, is the exception. When she chaired the Oxford University Liberal Democrats, she publicly advocated the abolition of the monarchy, denouncing the hereditary principle upon which it is based.

She has, however, abandoned republicanism, realizing it would have prevented her political advancement, and she noted last week that “the Crown endures”. In 2014, moreover, she said she had also renounced her earlier support of nuclear disarmament, and her recent bellicosity on the world stage is ample testament to that. Indeed, for somebody who now seeks to portray herself as a reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher, it comes as a shock to discover that she once attended public protests to chant “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out.”

Youthful indiscretions, of course, should never be held against a rising politician, and may even assist their development. With Truss, however, the U-turn has become second nature, and is now one of her most notable features. Indeed, on Sept 3, 2022, Time magazine reported that she was seen by many as “a political opportunist — someone who can tack rapidly and completely to whatever position suits her at the time”. In other words, this is no “Iron Lady”, but just another careerist on the make.

Although Truss loves to ape Margaret Thatcher, one obvious difference has always been the latter’s utter consistency, adhering to her core beliefs through thick and thin

A classic example of this was her volte-face over the UK’s membership of the European Union, of which she was once an ardent supporter. In 2016, when she was the environment and food minister in David Cameron’s government, she described Brexit as a “triple tragedy”, advocated by “those living in cloud cuckoo land”, which delighted her boss. Once, however, Cameron lost the EU referendum and resigned, Truss immediately reinvented herself as a rabid Brexiteer, eager to confront Brussels. She even became a hero of the Conservative Party’s Europhobe right wing, which subsequently threw its weight behind her bid to succeed Boris Johnson.

In David Cameron’s time, moreover, his “golden era” China policy involved forging better ties with Beijing, and nobody was more supportive of this than Truss. So much so that, on the eve of her four-day visit in 2015, she declared she was “delighted to visit China, a key global economic partner for the UK”. She even enthused over how keen she was “to build real collaboration in areas that are complementary to our two economies — areas in which we can exchange knowledge and expertise, such as agri-technology, skills and innovation”.

However, once Cameron departed and Theresa May, who was closely aligned to him, was ousted, Truss’s views, once again, underwent a sea change. She threw in her lot with the increasingly rabid anti-China wing of the Conservative Party, which had been energized by the likes of former party leader Iain Duncan Smith. Indeed, once the UK left the EU in 2020, and Johnson allowed the US to determine British foreign policy, Truss realized that her future advancement was linked to denouncing China’s resurgence, and she was quite correct.

She knew it would be fatal to her leadership ambitions to adhere to Cameron’s China-friendly policy, and realized that confrontation would greatly help her prospects. She not only joined hands with her party’s McCarthyite wing, but even emerged as its standard-bearer. During the leadership campaign, moreover, she unscrupulously played the China card at every opportunity, whipping up hostility toward Beijing. She even announced her intention to designate China as an “acute threat” to the UK, alongside Russia, and this was rapturously received by enough of her party’s hawks to propel her into No 10 Downing Street.

Once there, Truss immediately sought to reward party ideologues for their backing. Whereas five members of Parliament had been sanctioned by Beijing in 2021 for what were called their “lies and disinformation” about China, she sought to recruit them into her government. Although Iain Duncan Smith declined her offer, reportedly because it was not sufficiently grand, three others eagerly accepted. Whereas Tom Tugendhat, a leading Sinophobe and founder of the China Research Group, an anti-China propaganda outfit, was appointed minister of state security, and Nus Ghani, whose forte is peddling myths about China’s Uygur population, was appointed minister of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, Neil O’Brien, a Tugendhat crony from the China Research Group, became a junior health minister.

Quite clearly, therefore, this sinister triumvirate will be operating like a cancer within the government, doing as much harm as possible. They will be trying to poison Sino-British relations, to undermine trade with China, and to prevent future investment. Quite clearly, in its current predicament, and with a recession only weeks away, Britain needs people like this like a hole in the head, and Truss will hopefully perform another of her U-turns before lasting damage is done, which should not be difficult.

Although Truss loves to ape Margaret Thatcher, one obvious difference has always been the latter’s utter consistency, adhering to her core beliefs through thick and thin. Addressing the Conservative Party Conference on Oct 10, 1980, Thatcher famously declared, “You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning,” something that could never be said of Truss. Indeed, her U-turns are the stuff of legend, and she must come up with another one now.

It is, of course, one thing for Truss to titillate her base by playing ideological games, but quite another for her to play fast and loose with the future of the British people. They have not elected her, as she is only the choice of paid-up party members, and even the majority of her own members of Parliament backed her rival, Rishi Sunak, but it may still be possible for her to turn things round. If, for example, she can rediscover her belief in what she once called “real collaboration” with China, it may yet be possible for the economy to grow, for the recession to be short-lived, and for new horizons to emerge. Although this will require Truss to do another of her U-turns, this has never been a problem, and to do so now would be in the national interest.

*The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.