“President Macron, friend or foe?” the presenter asked Liz Truss. Before she could answer, a xenophobic snigger rippled through the Tory audience in Norwich. A gleeful smile crossed her face as she semi-shouted “the jury’s out” – a smile that broadened as the crowd applauded.
Had she been a junior minister in the trade department, which is the actual level commensurate with Truss’s talents, this would still have been a major diplomatic mistake. But Truss is the serving Foreign Secretary and likely to be prime minister by the end of next week.
Macron is not the French prime minister: he is the head of state. He’s the living embodiment of the French Republic’s sovereignty. A uniformed general carries the nuclear codes around behind him in a leather briefcase.
Apart from the Polish army and the Channel, the armed forces Macron commands are the only significant obstacle between Vladimir Putin’s tanks and Dover. Apart from the US, whose democracy is fragile, France is the only other democracy among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
If France is a potential enemy, who the heck does Truss think are our friends?
We know where these catastrophic instincts come from. When Julia Hartley-Brewer, an arch Brexiteer and little Englander, asks whether Macron is “friend or foe”, she meant – implicitly – over post-Brexit trade and the dirty business of stopping refugees getting on boats from Calais. Rishi Sunak, Truss’ rival, had answered “friend”, hence the ripple of anticipation from the assembled xenophobes and racists.
Truss actually lost control of her voice as she enunciated “the jury’s out”. It is impossible not to conclude from her body language that, like all Thatcher nostalgics, she really hates the French – a Tory tradition stretching back via the Falklands War to the Napoleonic era.
The crowd roared approval as she added: “If I become prime minister I will judge him on deeds not words.”
Again, this is an incredibly unclever departure from diplomatic protocol. The point about alliances – like Nato and the US-led Ramstein Group, which is coordinating Western responses to Russia’s attack on Ukraine – is that you do judge people by their words. You get them to write down commitments in communiqués, treaties and diplomatic notes; you take calls on private hotlines where the basic capitalist principle, “my word is my bond”, has to be good enough.
When Truss flew to Prague, for example, in May this year she had no problem addressing the Czech foreign minister, a member of the Pirate Party which questions the legality of Nato’s Afghan and Libyan interventions, as her “friend”. Likewise, while visiting India in March, she described the country as “the world’s biggest democracy and a great friend of Britain” despite the fact that Narendra Modi, the prime minister, has not lifted a finger to help Western sanctions against Russia, and presides over an occupation of Kashmir that hundreds of thousands of British citizens oppose.
There was, until the Johnson government collapsed, actually supposed to be an Anglo-French summit later this year and Truss’s job, at least for the next ten days, is technically to make it happen.
You have to hope this was just posturing for the brain-dead Tory membership, but even if it was it reflects something I fear we will find out when Truss becomes PM. You can be clever at maths but still be stupid at politics.
In the context of Russian aggression – not just against Ukraine but in the traditional French spheres of influence in Africa – Truss’s comments can only be seen as self-inflicted damage to the Western alliance. To question, even jokingly, the commitment of the French commander in chief to the united front against Russian totalitarianism is, in the context of the alliance building done by Joe Biden, the US president, since February, just unforgivable.
The 80th anniversary of D-Day will, if we’re really unlucky, happen during the Truss premiership. Let’s hope some of the gravitas and self-control normally required of British prime ministers has rubbed off on her by then.