Liz Truss: is the UK’s new boss better than the old one?

If the incoming prime minister fails to 'get Brexit done', she will meet the same fate as her predecessor

New Conservative Party leader and incoming prime minister Liz Truss arrives at the party headquarters in London on Monday. Getty
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The accounting is in on Britain’s so-called Festival of Brexit. It was meant to be a patriotic celebration but, instead, it is the second-most obvious failure to come out of the UK since voting to leave the EU (we’ll get to the Number One failure in a moment).

The Festival of Brexit idea was born after the 2016 referendum as part of the "take our country back" nostalgia when Boris Johnson used to promise that Britain could "have our cake and eat it". But, now as we say hello to our fourth Conservative Prime Minster in six years, Liz Truss is finding out that there is no cake after all, and the Festival of Brexit turns out to be a disaster. Sixty-six million visitors were thought likely to visit the festival. Only 238,000 turned up. The festival cost £120 million ($138m), so a government handout of £500 each might have been more useful in these hard economic times.

The Festival of Brexit nickname was controversial. It was quickly dropped, in part because few people in Britain’s creative communities wanted to be associated with anything badged as Brexit. It was renamed Unboxed but the £120m White Elephant never caught the public imagination.

Yet, it is only the second-most obvious failure to come out of leaving the EU because this week, the most obvious failure is of course Mr Johnson himself. The accounting is in on him, too. He was chosen as Conservative party leader in 2019 on a promise to "get Brexit done". That slogan won him 43.6 per cent of the vote in the December 2019 general election which, under the archaic Westminster system, guaranteed a parliamentary landslide of 80 seats. But since then, the British people – most notably those who voted for Brexit and voted for Mr Johnson – have recognised that Brexit is far from done. It’s unfinished.

Paisley Abbey is illuminated during a photocall, as part of the 'Unboxed: Creativity in the UK' event, in Paisley, Scotland, in February. AFP
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The British people have recognised that Brexit is far from done

Yet, undeterred, Mr Johnson’s resignation speech boasted that his proudest achievements were "getting Brexit done, settling our relations with the continent after half a century and reclaiming the power for this country to make its own laws in parliament".

The political analyst and pollster Peter Kellner pointed out that "the trouble is that most voters reject his claim". A Deltapoll found only one in three voters thought Mr Johnson had kept his promise to get Brexit done. Almost two thirds – 60 per cent – agreed, instead, that Mr Johnson "has not really fulfilled his promise as Brexit is not going well and many problems in our relationship with the EU have yet to be solved". This is a toxic inheritance for his successor, Liz Truss. As Mr Kellner noted, this profound dissatisfaction extends to both those British voters who voted Leave in 2016 (46 per cent) and those who voted Conservative in 2019 (41 per cent.) Mr Kellner concludes that while some Leave voters now think Brexit was simply a mistake, "around 4 million Leave voters still favour Brexit but say it has so far worked out badly" during Mr Johnson’s time in power.

Unless Ms Truss can convince Conservative and Brexit voters otherwise, she is unlikely to win the next general election. Polling for the Conservative party is grim. Most show the Labour opposition about 10 per cent ahead of the Conservatives. Of course, Ms Truss may get some kind of bounce from being the new face in Downing Street, except for the fact that she is an old face – formerly a minister in the Environment Department, the Justice Department and the Foreign Office among other jobs. Some commentators suggest she has risen without a trace, full of ambition yet lacking any real achievements in any of these jobs. She has loudly trumpeted her post-Brexit trade deals, yet almost all have simple been rollovers of existing EU trade deals.

Outgoing British prime minister Boris Johnson blowing glass at the University of Sunderland. PA Wire

Any Truss honeymoon will probably be very short because her in-tray is daunting – one of the most serious economic crises most of us can remember, soaring inflation, energy bills crippling businesses and terrifying ordinary families, plus the Ukraine conflict and the unresolved Brexit rows.

Mr Johnson offered some characteristically bizarre farewell advice to the British people. He suggested we could all save energy by buying a new kettle for £20 thereby saving about £10 a year. I am not making this up. He made some kind of analogy with the UK’s failure to invest in nuclear power, although his Conservative party has been in power for 12 years and failed to do so.

The Johnson years, like the Festival of Brexit, never lived up to any of the publicity nor the wild ambitions Boris and his boosters promised. Perhaps historians will see Mr Johnson’s epitaph in the comments by Keir Starmer, the Labour party leader. Mr Starmer said that Mr Johnson was not a wicked person, but he was a "trivial" one. A showman is not an act suitable for difficult times. It’s an act which – like the Festival of Brexit – the public came to reject. And my kettle is old but reliable. I think I may need to sit down and have a strong cup of tea.

Published: September 06, 2022, 5:17 AM
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