Queen Elizabeth's Death Takes Away the Spotlights from PM Truss, Govt in Turmoil
Memo to Liz Truss: Do Something About UK Foreign Policy's Colonial Bias
As if the circumstances surrounding her elevation to Prime Ministership were not already dramatic enough – Boris Johnson's ouster, the unseemly scramble to succeed him, the prevailing economic turmoil-– Liz Truss now finds herself in a situation no previous new administration ever faced. The sudden death of Queen Elizabeth, barely two days after appointing Liz Truss to the top job has thrown her nascent and struggling administration into turmoil.
It came on the day when Truss had announced a controversially ambitious plan to deal with an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis facing Britain. Truss was perhaps having visions of seeing it splashed all over the front pages the next day. It was swept away by the news of the Queen's passing away and its wall-to-wall media coverage.
Nobody is talking about Truss now, and is not likely to for at least another ten days when the Queen's funeral is scheduled. Thankfully, nobody believes in auguries and omens anymore. Otherwise, some might have been tempted to divine meanings into this chain of events.
But to go back to her appointment, it's not often that a newly-elected leader of an advanced Western nation is greeted with so much scepticism as Truss has been, both across Europe and on the other side of the pond. The only recent exceptions, I can think of, were Donald Trump, and her own immediate predecessor Boris Johnson. And we all know how their stories ended.
Forget the reaction abroad. Even the domestic reaction verged on insulting. She has been variously described as a political opportunist, economically illiterate, diplomatically crass, socially awkward, and abrasive. A headline in The Times, "There's Nothing More to Truss Than Meets the Eye" sums up the contempt in which she is held outside the tiny bubble of her supporters.
Truss is Britain's fourth Prime Minister in six years, an indication of the decline of Britain's once-famously stable political system. She is the least popular compared to her three previous predecessors. She may have won the race against her rival Rishi Sunak, but her victory margin (57 per cent against Sunak's 43 per cent) is smaller than that of David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson.
She neither has the backing of a majority of Tory Members of Parliament, nor the overwhelming confidence of grassroots party members who make up the electorate that elected her. The reason she was able to pull it off was a combination of the composition of the electorate (mostly old white and right-wing activists), the view that Rishi Sunak "back-stabbed" Johnson instigating his downfall, and an underlying strain of white racism.
Given the slim margin of her victory and how divisive the nearly two-month-long leadership contest was, Truss leads the most divided Tory party of recent times. Media reports suggest that knives are already out with Sunak's supporters allegedly plotting to undermine her with attacks on her proposed agenda to deal with the crippling economic crisis facing Britain.
But far from trying to make peace with them she has alienated them further by virtually freezing them out from her ministry. Not a single Sunak supporter has found a place in the Cabinet. After widespread criticism, she has grudgingly doled out a few junior jobs to them.
There's concern within her own camp that at a time when her priority should be to pull the party together, with Labour 15 per cent ahead in opinion polls, her confrontationist approach risks damaging its prospects at the next general elections, less than two years ago. The mood is so febrile that barely days in office her fitness for the job is already being questioned and, according to one opinion poll, some 50 per cent of the voters want her to call fresh elections by year-end and seek popular mandate.
Her record in previous jobs, Secretary of State for International Trade, and more recently Foreign Secretary, doesn't inspire much confidence even among those who admire her chutzpah. Mostly known for her gaffes and ideological inconsistency, she has been dubbed "Boris Johnson O.2 minus his charisma" and election-winning tactics.
Truss's CV is shot with contradictions, marked by too many U-turns for a politician to be taken at face value: a left-wing-Liberal-Democrat-turned-Tory; a staunch Europphile (she voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum) now a hardline Brexiteer; and a "small state" Tory suddenly preparing to splurge millions of pounds in state subsidies.
She advertises herself as an heir to Margaret Thatcher even going to the extent of dressing like her, but those who knew Mrs T find any comparison with her insulting to her memory. The joke going round Westminster is that the only thing Truss has in common with Thatcher is that her surname also begins with "T".
Her gaffes as foreign secretary are going to haunt her as she sets out to engage with world leaders. The most cringing was during an abrasive conversation with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. She reportedly accused Russia of bombing Rostov and Voronezh believing they were in Ukraine and had to be corrected by a red-faced British ambassador that they were in fact Russian citites!
On another occasion, she thought that the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania lay off the Black Sea, rather than the Baltic Sea, prompting much hilarity at her expense. A Russian official said: "The Baltic countries are called so because they are located precisely off the coast of this [Baltic] sea. Not the Black [Sea]. If anyone needs to be saved from anything, then it is the world from the stupidity and ignorance of Anglo-Saxon politicians."
So, what does her victory mean for the flagging India-UK relations? Is Truss the person to revive them?
The simple answer is "no". Despite her India-friendly public rhetoric, essentially aimed at pleasing the Indian diaspora, she doesn't really relate to India the way the Indophile Boris Johnson did. Her recent visit to Delhi as foreign secretary was a near-disaster because of her crude attempt to drag India into Britain's proxy war with Russia. An irritated External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar effectively told her to mind her own business as he rejected her call for New Delhi to work together with "like-minded nations" to Isolate Russia: a code for joining Western sanctions against it.
To be fair, she has no personal like or dislike for India. The fact is that at the moment foreign policy is not on anybody's list of priorities in Britain. The country is in the midst of arguably the worst economic crisis in recent memory--reminiscent of the 1970s when Britain was dubbed the "sick man" of Europe, with millions of Brits struggling to feed themselves because of inflation-fuelled high prices.
Her in-tray is heaving with domestic challenges, and in coming months she is going to be too busy trying to survive what is predicted to be a "winter of discontent" to have time for India. Yet, she has promised a "committed" relationship with India, and its first test is barely weeks away, October 24, to be precise. This is the deadline set by Johnson to finalise the long-delayed Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The date was chosen for symbolic significance. It will be Diwali day.
Britain wants to portray the deal as a big step towards its post-Brexit push for closer relations with Commonwealth countries through "fast-track" trade deals.
But Johnson's departure has put a question mark over its future and there's speculation that it's "much less certain the Diwali deadline will hold", as one analyst put it.
Although Truss is said to be keen to push the deal through, it has run into opposition from businesses which feel it's too heavily loaded in India's favour, and rushing it through will harm British interests. British interests.
Among their principal concerns is securing a commitment from India to lower its prohibitive 150 percent tariffs on Scotch whisky . The two sides have struggled to find a common ground.
"The Indians know that it is one of the main offensive interests for the UK As a result, they are using it as leverage to secure a good outcome on their own offensive interests," one business executive involved in negotiations told Politico magazine. It said there were concerns that New Delhi saw the current political turmoil in Britain as an "opportunity to bounce Britain into wrapping talks". A UK parliamentary committee has also warned against accepting a "poor" deal simply to meet an artificial deadline.
In terms of wider India-UK relations, a major irritant is Britain's almost rude indifference to India's long-standing demand for more student and business visas. It has also been pressing for an end to frequent changes to visa rules and intra-company transfers that have hit Indian migrants hard. Indian businesses say doing business with Britain is becoming increasingly hard.
Adding insult to injury, last year India was excluded from an expanded list of countries that enjoy preferred status for student visas. China, on the other hand, was included in the list. Not surprisingly, the move caused outrage in Indian circles. Business leader Lord Bilimoria called it "another kick in the teeth for India".
The problem is that Britain has form on talking a good talk but failing to deliver on it. During his Brexit referendum campaign, Johnson pledged to open up immigration from India and other Commonwealth countries once the free movement of workers from the European Union stopped. Many Indian expats voted for Brexit on the back of this promise. But after winning the referendum we didn't hear any more of it.
Sadly, for all the ritualistic references to "historic" ties, India-UK relations are flagging. They are often jokingly likened to those between an amiable old couple muddling through for old time's sake but lacking any spark.
At the heart of the trouble of Britain's relations with India is a lingering colonial mindset that still informs much of London's foreign policy towards its former colonies. It ignores the fact that many are now major economic powers in their own right who expect to be treated as equal partners. Not long ago, Britain's influential Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee warned that it risked being left behind in the global race to engage with India if it didn't change its current approach.
"India's place in the world is changing fast and the UK government needs to adjust its strategy to fit India's enhanced influence and power; the UK cannot afford to be complacent or rely on historical ties," it said. Is Truss the person to change that mindset? Personally, I don't think so. But I would be happy to be proved wrong.
Meanwhile, her performance in Parliament and other public engagements since she took over has surprised critics. She has come across as confident, clear-headed, and someone who is not interested in frippery, unlike her predecessor. Very different from her image as wooden, awkward and fuzzy.
But it's early days, and the jury is still out.
Hasan Saroor is a London-based commentator