Liz Truss’ new cabinet: A fresh start, or a stale dripping

September 09, 2022 10:01
Liz Truss was appointed Prime Minister by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on September 6. Photo: Reuters

In Britain, Liz Truss replaced Boris Johnson as the Leader of the Conservative Party on September 5 – and was swiftly appointed Prime Minister by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on September 6. Truss’ premiership came off the back of a heated but predominantly one-sided race against Rishi Sunak – a rival who had secured the largest number of votes from fellow MPs in the run-offs and selection process for the final two candidates in the race; yet also one who swiftly lost to Truss in a rough 6:4 split (approximately).

Truss vanquished her opponents – and her victory lap was most certainly sealed through her appointing some of her sturdiest backers to the cabinet. James Cleverly was promoted to helm the Foreign Office, whilst long-standing supporter and confidante Thérèse Coffey has been appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Health Secretary. Erstwhile (amongst some circles, at least) maverick Jacob Rees-Mogg finally nabbed a full cabinet post in Business Secretary, whilst Suella Braverman – competent, lawyer-esque ex-Attorney General – was appointed to Home Secretary. Out of the three non-PM Great Offices of the State, none went to individuals whom Truss did not, pun intended, trust. There is thus a high degree of emphasis upon ideological convergence and consistency (as well as personal loyalty) amongst her inner circle and the upper echelon of this cabinet. Unsurprising, perhaps, given Truss’ veteran experience in student politics (she cut her teeth as the President of the Oxford University Liberal Democrats, dabbled in union politics, then proceeded to jump ship to the Tories – though as many around her had maintained, she has always been a ‘liberal’ with a small ‘l’ in the market/economic sense, paired with a sturdy sense of amorphous conservatism on social matters; thus it’s not so much her jumping ship, they insist, than the moderating stance of the contemporary Tories on social affairs that had led her to abandon the LibDems, for the ‘light’).

Truss’ ascent comes at a time when the British economy is in dire straits – the double whammy of the war in Ukraine and Brexit has not taken kindly to the Perfidious Albinion, leaving inflation rates skyrocketing and economic growth stagnating amidst a widely discontent public that is bracing itself for a difficult, treacherous winter of energy bills. What would her economic policy look like, then? From her long-standing ethos and vision as a skeptic towards the state, as well as recent statements concerning the need to minimise governmental involvement in subsidising or backing transformative economic policies that would ‘rock the boat’, a convincing take would be that she is likely to pursue free-market, laissez-faire policies including de-regulating the public sector, cracking down on labour unions (channelling Margaret ‘Maggie’ Thatcher of yore), as well as rolling back on much of the subsidy that had been distributed towards struggling firms with workers on furlough during the pandemic. Yet this read should indeed be complicated and balanced by the fact that Truss could ill-afford to alienate the bulwark of the Tory base – individuals residing in the equivalent to the American rustbelt of Britain, but also those who are landed gentry and entrenched interests in Southwest England. Such interest coalitions are unlikely to stand to gain from the vast tax cuts and state shrinkages Truss promises; paired with pressure from those within her cabinet who have reservations over drastic departures from the economic status quo (dire as it might be) – for whom the free market remains an ideal vision to espouse but not a policy to pursue, it is likely that Truss would seek to progressively roll out curbs to the state on a gradualist manner, preceded and buttressed neatly by grandiose schemes designed to bail out families struggling to cope with the incoming winter and fuel prices.

The foreign policy of Truss is clear for all to see: she does not like Russia, and she does not like China, either. Some naively believe that Truss’ foreign policy stances could be swayed in accordance with economic and business interest – after all, there exist rampant commentaries suggesting that Truss may have to look to softening her rhetoric against China in face of the straggling economy that Britain has (second worst to only Russia amongst the largest economies in the world). This prediction is – whilst perhaps benign-intentioned – fundamentally mistaken. Truss’ foreign policy is an extension of her ‘values’; her ‘values’ are an extension of a rhetorical pitch that anchors Britain in an anachronistic (albeit idyllic) vision of its being a great power, capable of providing global leadership and pastoral guidance to other powers in distress. I am no ‘anti-West’ basher as it stands, but to think that Britain could convincingly deliver a values-based diplomatic approach, play a leading or significant role in international coalitions and alliances in face of seismic upheavals, as well as maintain strategic autonomy from both the United States and Europe alike, frankly amounts to a trilemma. It is likely that No. 10 would settle for a world where Britain meets the first two criteria (the first criterion especially tangentially), and cede strategic autonomy to Washington, which has stood to gain from both Truss and Johnson’s tenures. To move from Britain’s economic distress to a prediction of incentives on Whitehall/No. 10’s part to strip back its skepticism towards China, is frankly a rather simplistic thought. Truss would continually lean into NATO, possibly AUKUS, as well as other alliances deemed to be at the forefront of a ‘containment’ campaign against China. Mind you, much of the sound and fury is unlikely to have any actual effect on Beijing, save from bolstering the most active and trenchant voices that have long insisted that Britain is a lost cause. Deteriorating Sino-British relations are thus all but inevitable in the short term – the medium term might turn out to be better, but in the long term, we are all dead!

In any case, Truss’ new cabinet is certainly one to watch. These are new times in Britain – these are also old times. So much, yet so little, has changed with the binning of the old, and the revival of the old(er) guard.

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Assistant Professor, HKU