Deirdre Heenan: Does Truss have the appetite to solve the protocol problem?

New Prime Minister Liz Truss is facing an in-tray of challenges not seen since the 1970s
New Prime Minister Liz Truss is facing an in-tray of challenges not seen since the 1970s

THE funeral of the much-loved and much-respected late queen has provided Liz Truss some welcome breathing space to get a sense of perspective on her new role.

The pause in the normal cut and thrust of politics may have enabled Truss to reassess her priorities and ambitions.

She is facing an in-tray of challenges not seen since the 1970s including rampant inflation, the NHS collapsing, a brutal war in Europe, spiralling energy costs, a looming recession, and a fracturing union with Scotland.

Against this daunting backdrop, she may decide that she doesn’t have the bandwidth nor the stomach for the continued conflict with the EU.

The beginning of her premiership presents a unique window of opportunity to reset the UK and EU relations. The question is, does Truss have the appetite to resolve the outstanding issues?

Despite the rhetoric, in her first speech as PM setting out her priorities and vision for the UK neither the north nor the NI Protocol merited a mention. Hardly surprising given the scale of her task, but noteworthy all the same.

On a more positive note, she did not, as widely anticipated, trigger article 16. The proposed controversial Human Rights Bill which threatened to remove the UK from the ECHR was withdrawn and Truss repeatedly stressed her preference for a negotiated settlement with the EU.

The new prime minister is unlikely to enjoy a honeymoon period and has limited opportunities to stamp her imprimatur on this administration.

Her cabinet is stacked full of lackeys, enablers and throwbacks with no less than nine ERG members including Rees-Mogg and Braverman.

The announcement of Brexit ultra and former chair of the ERG Chris Heaton-Harris as NI Secretary was greeted with dismay by pro-protocol parties in the north.

During his tenure as the Tory party whip, he wrote to university vice-chancellors demanding a list of tutors lecturing on Brexit and copies of their course materials. This ludicrous intervention worthy of a dystopian novel was ridiculed as foolish pound-shop McCarthyism.

Just as news of this appointment was being digested, it was announced that he would be joined in the NIO by self-styled Brexit hard man Steve Baker. A move described by SDLP MP Claire Hanna as ‘obnoxious’.

Moving these Brexit Spartans to the NIO could be taken as a sign of Truss’s intent to play hard ball with the EU and a crass sop to unionism. An illustration perhaps that she has decided to outsource her responsibility in Northern Ireland to Brexit idealogues.

On the other hand, it could be a shrewd move, bringing the Brexit ultras in from the cold and neutralising attacks from the back benches.

On the ground in Belfast, Heaton-Harris and Baker will be confronted with the reality and consequences of their delusions. It is also worth noting that despite their rhetoric, both men voted for the protocol. Indeed, Baker quipped just days ago that his days of rebelling were over, he wanted to move on from Brexit.

It is possible that the new ministers’ ERG pedigree will provide reassurance for the DUP and deliver a face-saving exit from the corner that they have backed themselves into.

These unionists have been betrayed by their erstwhile ‘friends’ in the ERG before and will be under no illusion that English nationalism will trump any loyalty these men proclaim for Northern Ireland.

Heaton-Harris will have honed his negotiation skills as a Tory whip and will be well used to quelling rebellion. Rather than a recipe for disaster, these appointments may provide the impetus required to break the current stalemate.

The prime minister has already demonstrated that she is a pragmatist and can be ruthless if necessary.

In order to win the leadership contest, she divested herself of any ownership of the economic and social policies of the government of which she was a leading member.

Despite promising to lead a unity government, Sunak’s allies were purged from the cabinet. Her opposition to handouts was quickly jettisoned when she needed a swift response to the energy bill crisis.

Rather than months of instability as the NI Protocol Bill works its way through the House of Lords, Truss may decide that resolving the issue would be a prize well worth winning, on both a personal and political level.

A deal could repair the deeply-fractured relationship with the EU, rebuild Anglo-Irish relations, secure the approval of the Biden administration, help secure a highly-prized trade deal with the US and restart the Stormont government.

Truss would be able answer her detractors by achieving something that her predecessor could not, solving the Northern Ireland conundrum and getting Brexit done.

Settling the NI Protocol issue will not be easy, but it is not impossible. Eventually a compromise will have to be reached.

Truss has repeatedly promised to deliver, deliver, deliver for the UK. Delivering stability in this fragile region in the post-Brexit era would be a good start.