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3 January 2022

Martin Fletcher

Liz Truss has embraced the Big Lie of Brexit

The Foreign Secretary, who backed Remain, now shamelessly promotes the myth that leaving the EU has been good for Britain.

This was Liz Truss, the woman who could conceivably become prime minister in 2022, campaigning for the UK to remain in the European Union during the 2016 referendum.

If “you care about being an outward-facing, internationally-focused country go out and vote [Remain]”, the then environment secretary argued with evident passion. “We would be stronger, safer, and better off in a reformed Europe,” she insisted. To leave the EU would be a “leap into the dark” and lead to “years of complication and risk”. 

In a Guardian interview, Truss urged Labour supporters to vote Remain, arguing that membership of the EU magnified Britain’s global influence. “When you are speaking for 500 million people that really carries weight.” 

She told the National Farmers’ Union: “I believe that by voting to remain we can work within a reformed EU to reduce bureaucracy and secure further reform while still enjoying the significant benefits of the single market, which gives us access to 500 million consumers.” 

Truss even signed a declaration with Labour’s Ed Miliband, the Liberal Democrat Ed Davey and the Greens’ Caroline Lucas calling Brexit campaigners “extreme and outdated”, and saying that EU collaboration was the only way to tackle climate change.

That was then. Today, the Foreign Secretary champions Brexit. In a set-piece speech at Chatham House last month she declared: “After almost 50 years in the EU, once again all the levers of international policy are in our hands – diplomacy, development, trade and security. It’s a new opportunity for the UK to shape the international agenda. An unfrozen moment we must capitalise on. As an outward-looking sovereign nation, we are rebuilding our muscle to fulfil the promise of Global Britain – ready to win opportunities for our country and win the future for freedom.”

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In a subsequent interview on Nick Robinson’s Political Thinking podcast she said: “In retrospect I’d have voted for Brexit because I think it’s given us huge freedom and flexibility we didn’t have before.”

All of which prompts the question: what on earth has happened during the past six years to change her mind? 

To most people, Brexit’s benefits remain obscure, to say the least. Even a plurality of Leave voters – 42 per cent – say it has proven worse than they expected. 

On the first anniversary of Britain leaving the single market and the customs union (31 December) Boris Johnson boasted of striking more than 70 new trade deals, without mentioning that all but two merely extended existing EU deals, or that a promised trade deal with the US has failed to materialise.

He claimed to have taken back control of Britain’s borders, without mentioning the asylum seekers who are crossing the Channel in record numbers, or the acute labour shortages caused by ending free movement. 

Desperate for concrete achievements to brag about, our Dear Great Leader was reduced to citing the return of the crown stamp on pint glasses.

Offsetting those dubious triumphs are the grave damage Brexit has inflicted on Britain’s economy, the weakening of the Union, the destabilisation of Northern Ireland, the rupturing of social cohesion, the loss of global stature, the collapse of relations with the EU in general and with France and Ireland in particular, the loss of our freedom to live and work anywhere in Europe, and much else besides. Nor is Brexit yet “done”, as Johnson seeks to renege on the very withdrawal deal that he signed and wholeheartedly acclaimed at the end of 2019.

Of course politicians change their minds, but seldom on such a core issue as Brexit or with so little obvious reason. But there is, of course, another blindingly obvious explanation for Truss’s Damascene conversion, and it is this. 

Just as US Republicans must embrace Donald Trump’s lie about the 2020 presidential election having been stolen if they are to have any future in their party, so our fiercely ambitious Foreign Secretary knows she cannot possibly advance any further without adopting the Big Lie that Brexit is good for Britain. 

She cannot possibly become leader of today’s Conservative Party without persuading the ideological zealots who have hijacked it that she is ideologically pure. She cannot possibly become prime minister without pledging to continue with a seismic change in the national trajectory that she knows is deeply damaging to Britain. Without, in short, selling her soul. 

To hell with principles. Truss is, after all, the former justice secretary who shockingly and shamefully failed to defend the three high court judges denounced as “enemies of the people” by the demagogic Daily Mail after ruling that the government required parliament’s consent to trigger the Brexit process.

With Johnson mired in troubles and rock bottom in the opinion polls, it is far from inconceivable that his regicidal backbenchers will ditch him if the Conservatives flounder in May’s local elections, and that a tiny electorate of barely 200,000 crusty old Tories will foist Truss on the country as its next prime minister.

But while much of Britain would rejoice at Johnson’s departure, I suspect that Truss’s elevation would do little to heal the UK. That is because the Big Lie that she’s signed up to distorts, subverts and poisons our political and public life. 

Brexit is, in reality, proving so harmful to Britain that it forces this Conservative government to lie, demonise Remainers, wage culture wars, choose “sovereignty” over pragmatism, pick endless fights with the EU, purge dissenters and resort to tawdry jingoism to keep its new “Red Wall” supporters on-side (Truss even keeps a Union Jack in her Greenwich home for deployment in unplanned television interviews).

Conversely, Labour cannot provide the robust opposition this country so desperately needs, or a compelling agenda for government, because it doubts it can regain those “Red Wall” seats if it criticises Brexit. Keir Starmer’s party is like a doctor offering prescriptions for all manner of lesser ailments while ignoring the socking great tumour that is the root cause of the patient’s sickness.

I long for the removal of our corrupt and incompetent Prime Minister. But I fear that Truss’s ascent would not end this dark and tragic chapter in our nation’s history.

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