The UK leadership race and the future of cross-Channel relations

·5-min read
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The UK Conservative party will announce on Monday who will replace Boris Johnson as prime minister. Either Liz Truss will become Britain's third female PM if she wins the Conservative leadership election, or rival Rishi Sunak will be the first non-white incumbent in Downing Street. So how does this play out for Paris and Brussels?

The campaign for the Tory party leadership – sparked by Prime Minister Boris Johnson's resignation in July – has highlighted the two contenders' differing approaches to tackling the country's problems.

Rishi Sunak, whose resignation as finance minister over a series of government scandals helped to spark the leadership contest, is considered the better public speaker.

But he has come under fire for clinging to fiscal orthodoxy to tackle runaway inflation and has been hamstrung by his image as a wealthy technocrat.

At the same time, he has faced accusations of treachery for bringing down the Tories' Brexit hero Johnson.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has in contrast emerged as favourite to win the poll of 160,000 grassroots Conservative party members – the result of which will be announced on Monday, 5 September.

Truss: An 'opportunist' political journey

Forty-seven--year-old Truss has described her ascent towards the top of British politics as a "journey" that has seen her criticised for being ambitiously opportunistic.

She hails from a left-wing family and initially joined the centrist Liberal Democrats before jumping ship to the right-wing Conservatives.

In 2010, she became MP for the South West Norfolk constituency in eastern England, surviving revelations of an affair that almost cost her the nomination.

Over the past decade she has held a series of ministerial posts in the education and finance departments as well as a difficult spell in justice.

In 2016, Truss campaigned for the UK to remain in the European Union but quickly became one of Brexit's strongest supporters when Britons voted in favour of departure.

When the UK left the EU, Johnson put her in charge of negotiating new free trade deals before appointing her as foreign secretary last year.

When heading up the foreign ministry, Truss took on the controversial task of trying to defuse differences with Brussels about post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland.

Sunak: The establishment élite?

Rishi Sunak is the 42-year-old grandson of Indian immigrants, who grew up as the son of a doctor and a pharmacist in Southampton, on England's south coast.

He attended the prestigious fee-paying Winchester College school, then Oxford University, and is portrayed by critics as an elitist, establishment politician.

Having also studied at Stanford University in the US, Sunak held jobs at Goldman Sachs and various investment funds.

Since 2015, he has represented the constituency of Richmond in northern England, where he was soon marked out as a potential future prime minister.

He became finance minister in early 2020, quickly winning plaudits for spearheading government support to people and businesses affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sunak – a self-confessed geek with a love of Star Wars – saw opinion turn against him this year, after it emerged that his wife did not pay UK tax.

Critics have also used his private wealth, expensive clothes and houses to portray him as out of touch with the ordinary public.

Is France 'friend or foe'?

At a Conservative leadership campaign event last week, Liz Truss refused to say if the French leader was a "friend or foe".

"If I become prime minister, I would judge him on deeds not words. The jury's out," she said to applause from Tory grassroots members.

Playing down the "misplaced" comments from Truss, French President Emmanuel Macron called Britain an ally no matter who is in charge.

Macron responded: "If we are not capable, between France and Britain, of saying whether we are a friend or enemy – the term is not neutral – we are heading towards serious problems.

"The United Kingdom is a friend of France," Macron added.

Although Britain and France are notably allies at the heart of NATO and the UN Security Council, animosity over Brexit, fishing rights and dealing with cross-Channel migration have strained relations in recent years.

A fresh start for EU-UK relations?

Both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss told Conservative party members on the hustings in Belfast last month that they would “fix” the contentious Northern Ireland protocol should they become the UK’s next prime minister.

However, it must be remembered that Liz Truss was the one who introduced a controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill earlier this year that will give the British government the power to unilaterally scrap parts of the deal.

This is the part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement with Brussels that avoided a hard border on the island of Ireland by placing a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea.

The move was met with outrage from Dublin, Brussels and Washington, with US speaker Nancy Pelosi slamming the bill, underlining that anything that might damage the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland would put an end to bilateral trade negotiations between the UK and US.

The European Commission responded with a threat of litigation over London’s failure to enforce EU-required checks on British goods entering Northern Ireland, and Boris Johnson’s plan – as announced by Truss – to tear up a key part of the Brexit agreement he signed.

For his part, Sunak promised that he will “seek to talk to Europe, Ireland and the French to see if we can find a negotiated outcome” were he to become PM.

No matter who takes over from Johnson, one thing is clear – the incoming Prime Minister will face a litany of challenges on the home front – hyper-inflation, industrial action by workers over the cost of living, a war in Europe and imminent recession.

The reparation of relations with Paris and Brussels may be kept on the back-burner until the UK gets its domestic affairs in order.