On the diplomatic reception round, they’re loving the plight of the British government.
I hesitated there. I was going to say Liz Truss’s government, but such is the speed of events and the chaos she has unleashed, that between writing and publication, the UK could be welcoming — if that is the right word — yet another Tory leader and prime minister.
One joke, Italian in origin, is that Britain is thinking of sending for the departing Italian PM, non-partisan technocrat Mario Draghi, to act as a stand-in. Another, from Greece, is that they’re on standby to assist in talks with the International Monetary Fund, something the Greeks are well-versed in. And from Egypt, that the Egyptian pound has better prospects than the British pound.
They’re not exactly the sort of quips that spark belly laughs — this is the discreet, half an eyebrow-raised world of foreign relations, after all — but you get the picture. Significantly, too, all three relate to countries that traditionally have enjoyed far weaker reputations for economic stability and political certainty than the UK. Suddenly, London is bracketed in the eyes of the world alongside Rome, Athens and Cairo.
We can’t say we weren’t warned. In the recent poll of Brits in The National, 52 per cent of respondents said they were not confident Truss would be an effective world leader. Just 6 per cent were “very confident” she would be. Again, 52 per cent said they thought Boris Johnson and the turmoil at Westminster had damaged the UK’s global standing.
This authoritative survey of more than 2,000 adults was carried out in the first week of Truss’s reign, in other words before then-chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget, the subsequent U-turns, his dismissal, the appointment of Jeremy Hunt and further major policy reversals. If the same questions were asked today, the verdict would be even more damning. Under Truss, Britain has plummeted down the charts.
What baffles foreign observers — not just abroad but those living in the UK as well — is why a nation usually viewed with respect for its probity and rigour where financial matters are concerned should unveil a set of tax-cutting and other interventions that were not funded. It was the sort of throw of the switch that you associate with a new, revolutionary regime than with familiar, reliable old Britain.
The cavalier nature of the announcement, in particular the non-scrutiny by a reputable independent watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, was again, so un-British. On the international stage we’re seen as solid, stuffy; this was reckless, veering towards madness. OK, Britain had Boris Johnson as his prime minister but even Johnson, as much he as might have wanted to, did not rush, headlong into something like this.
Then, there was the timing. It was this last that saw what laughter there was quickly give way to anger at last week’s annual IMF meeting. Britain remains one of the world’s strongest, most influential economies. Any move it makes is bound to cause ripples in the markets. This though, was Britain provoking a series of earth-shaking tremors rather than a few gentle waves. Other countries, to put it mildly, needed these aftershocks like a hole in the head.
They were trying to deal with war, pandemic, inflation. Then along came Britain with an extra ingredient to lob into the mix.
It was unnecessary, uncalled for. The questions of why now, why all at once, were hard to answer — except of course that Truss and Kwarteng wished to make a bold statement that they were different. This is what drove them — witness, the firing of a senior Treasury mandarin, Sir Tom Scholar, regarded as someone who would put the brakes on what they were planning. They said it themselves: orthodoxy, of matching public spending with income, was to be ditched, it had held Britain back for a decade (one of Conservative rule, incidentally) and “growth, growth, growth” was to the order now.
Sly digs apart, other nations vented their frustration. US President Joe Biden called it a “mistake” and said it was “predictable” that Truss would have to backtrack. “What happened shows how volatile is the situation and so how prudent we should be also with our fiscal and monetary mix,” said Paolo Gentiloni, the EU’s economy chief.
While the international community was shocked by Truss’s behaviour, they were not entirely surprised. They’ve become used to Britain choosing to strike a different path.
In their eyes, we’ve completed the hat-trick: Brexit, Boris, budget. Indeed, much of the reaction towards the latter Truss-Kwarteng initiative can be explained by dismay and bafflement at the first two, especially the first. Every nation from time to time has a leader who is a source of wider amusement as much as annoyance. In this, Britain’s choice of Johnson was no different.
Brexit, though, was odd. Quite why we left the EU perplexed many overseas government heads, not just those in the EU. It’s not the leaving, however, as much as what the UK has achieved since that has left them genuinely unimpressed.
The promised trade deals bonanza, the lifting of restrictions that held the economy back — they simply have not happened, not in the volume as to be meaningful. The so-called “Brexit dividend” has not materialised.
This was reflected too in The National poll. A majority, 52 per cent, believed it was a bad thing that the UK left the EU, with a margin of more than two-to-one, saying that Brexit had generally gone worse than expected rather than better. Some 43 per cent said the trade deals the UK government had signed since leaving the EU have generally been bad for the UK. More than half of all adults wanted to see the UK aim to have a stronger relationship with the EU than at present.
Ironically, it was her determination to force change, to push ahead and shake Britain out of torpor, which saw Truss do what she did. It was the “anti-growth coalition” that she accused of holding Britain back, and make no mistake, Remainers who continue to fight the long-lost Brexit argument and cannot accept the result let alone respond positively to it, are firmly in that grouping.
The comfort blanket of the EU has been discarded. In trying to supply her country with what she saw as renewed purpose and distinct identity, in appealing to the same voters who also swallowed the boosterism of Brexit and of Johnson, Truss became horribly unstuck.