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Liz Truss's Gung-Ho Approach To Brexit Has Dampened Rishi Sunak's Leadership Bid

Liz Truss's Gung-Ho Approach To Brexit Has Dampened Rishi Sunak's Leadership Bid

Liz Truss visits Belfast during Conservative leadership hustings in Northern Ireland.

6 min read

Rishi Sunak is struggling to shake off the claim that he would take a softer line with the European Union than Liz Truss over the Northern Ireland Protocol row if he were to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister.

With just over two weeks to go in the Conservative party leadership contest, Liz Truss is the clear favourite to become the next prime minister on 5 September, with virtually all polling saying she is significantly more popular among party members than Sunak.

Truss' success in casting herself as a re-born devout Brexiteer, despite having voted for Remain at the 2016 referendum, has been central to her bid to succeed Boris Johnson and has helped her secure the backing of pro-Leave Conservative MPs and the party's overwhelmingly pro-Brexit membership alike.

Conversely, while Sunak campaigned to leave the EU, he has struggled against Truss on the question of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which for months has been the totemic Brexit row.

At the Tory leadership hustings in Belfast on Wednesday, Sunak and Truss agreed that fixing the post-Brexit treaty, which has bedevilled UK-EU relations since it was implemented in early 2021, was key to getting the region's political insitutions back up-and-running after months of stalemate.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is refusing to form a government with Stormont's largest party, Sinn Fein, over its opposition to the post-Brexit agreement, which it says is undermining Northern Ireland's place in the Union. The protocol was designed by UK and EU negotiators to avoid a contentious hard border on the island of Ireland, and did so by putting one in the Irish Sea.

Speaking at Belfast's grand Culloden Hotel this week, Truss and Sunak agreed that the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament, was the best way to remove the barriers to trade between Nothern Ireland and Great Britain, in the absence of a new deal with the European Commission.

But despite Sunak telling the 100-or-so local party members that there was "not a lot of disagreement" between him and Truss on the question of the protocol, his bid to enter Number 10 has suffered from a perception that he would be more conciliatory with Brussels, which Brexit hardliners have found off-putting. As staunch unionists, most Northern Irish Tories include themselves in that camp.

“He would bend towards the larger institution, which is the EU," said Angela, a Tory party member from Larne who spoke to PoliticsHome after Wednesday's hustings. "I don’t think he would serve the people of the UK. I think he would serve the people of the US and the EU."

Truss-backer Matthew Robinson, who chairs the Northern Irish Conservatives, believed that the Foreign Secretary, who has spearheaded the UK's Brexit negotiations since Lord Frost resigned in December, would take a harder line with Brussels than the former chancellor.

“She led the charge with the negotiations on the protocol and is uniquely placed to know the detail of that inside out. I trust that the [Northern Ireland Protocol] Bill is in safe hands under her leadership," he told PoliticsHome.

In Belfast, Truss told party members that she had been uncompromising in protocol negotiations with Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission Vice President, with whom her relationship has turned frosty. She even name checked Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the US House of Representatives, as a global political heavyweight she had she stood up to in defence of the UK's position.

“I am not somebody who has gone backwards or taken no for an answer," she said.

A mural of Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss on Hill Street, Belfast

Senior MPs backing Truss have publicly accused Sunak of being softer with the EU over the protocol.

Former Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis, has accused him of frustrating previous efforts to take action on the protocol, claiming there was “huge resistance from the Treasury” when the government wanted to unilaterally overhaul the post-Brexit agreement.

“The Treasury in my experience seems to want to try and keep the EU happy, when I’ve always felt our focus should be on working to deliver for the people of the United Kingdom and do what’s right by them as their sovereign government,” he wrote in The Telegraph in late July.

Late last year, Sunak warned the Cabinet against taking the escalatory step of triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol because it risked economically damaging retaliation from the EU.

Officials were said to be "shit scared" about the potential impact an EU retaliation would have on the flow of goods into the UK in the run-up to the busy Christmas period, while supply chains were already under severe pressure, PoliticsHome reported at the time

The Sunak campaign, however, categorically denies that he would be a softer touch than Truss with the EU.

"Rishi will take forward the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill," said a source on his campaign.

"He wants the EU to agree a sensible negotiated position on the protocol, but if they don't play ball he will not hesitate to legislate to protect the interests of the United Kingdom."

A senior Conservative MP who is backing Sunak said that not only is he a "tough international negotiator", but someone who has got more experience in negotiations with other countries.

"He has got huge experience in international negotiations and he’s someone who fights for his convictions," they told PoliticsHome. "If you look at what he’s done on global tax rates, or the sanctions on Russia, he was at the forefront of all of that."

Sunak was keen to talk up his performance on the global stage at the Belfast hustings.

"It [the Bill] will take time to pass so in the interim, of course as prime minister I would seek to talk to Europe, and Ireland, and the French, to see if we can find a negotiated outcome. I’ve got a track record in doing that. I’ve got good relationships with my counterparts across the board," he said.

He added, however, that a negotiated settlement with Brussels would deliver a solution "far quicker" than waiting for the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill to become law, in what could be interpreted as more evidence that he's more wary about a gung-ho approach to EU relations.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told PoliticsHome that the leadership contest was a matter for Conservative party members and refused to comment on individual candidates.

However, he warned the pair that while the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill was a "good step forward" towards restoring Stormont, there remains a "significant road to travel in terms of legislative stages and then also the relevant ministers making use of the legislation".

"I will be seeking an early discussion with the new prime minister to establish their plans," he said.

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