Column by Ivor Gaber: What lies behind Liz’s friendship with Macron

Despite the disaster at this week’s Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, Prime Minister Liz Truss may have a clever plan, suggests Ivor Gaber

I wonder who remembers that scene from countless Laurel and Hardy movies where Laurel turns to Hardy (or maybe it was the other way around) and says, “Nice mess you got us in.”

Would it be beyond the bounds of imagination to imagine Liz Truss saying the same thing to her Chancellor after markets responded with a giant raspberry to Kwasi Kwarteng’s non-budget?

Perhaps the least important measure it contained, but politically the most toxic, was the abolition of the 45p tax rate on salaries over £150,000.

On every sane and reasonable basis, and after the end of the ban on banker bonuses, this was a suicidal move – presumably done to excite and upset the “people who count”, the hedge fund managers and other would-be Tory donors. But even they were not impressed, and their MPs were decidedly unimpressed.

So much so that it forced Kwarteng into a humiliating relegation that soured the rest of that week’s conference. But the damage has been done and it will be a long time before the Tories regain their reputation for economic savvy, something which has been their key voting advantage over Labor in past elections.

A week after what most observers saw as a successful conference for Keir Starmer and Labour, the polls for Truss and the Tories fell like the proverbial rock, some putting the Conservatives a whopping 33 per cent behind Labour, which if it were in a general election repeated would reduce the Tories to just three seats (but that’s not going to happen).

You may have read a lot of this already, but there’s another narrative in the game that sends out a pretty different message than that of “The Iron Lady 2.0” Truss, and surprisingly, it’s about how our new PM seems to be trying – build-up friendly relations with the EU.

It started when Steve Baker, one of the hardest Brexit supporters and now Minister in the Northern Ireland office, made a startling admission and apology this week. Referring to the previous government, he said it did not “… always behave in a way that encouraged Ireland and the European Union to dare… I’m sorry” – words echoed the next day by his boss Chris Heaton-Harris were repeated.

This is an extraordinary turnaround, but just as surprising has been Truss’ actions over the past day or two.

One of the Tories’ main reasons for opposing Britain’s continued membership of the EU was concern that it would become both a political and an economic union. So when President Macron of France announced the convening of the first-ever meeting of the European Political Community in Prague, it was hardly a surprise when the government denounced it as a backdoor attempt by the French to create an EU political union – even though 12 countries outside the EU were involved.

To add to the sense of detachment from Europe, Truss refused to say whether Macron was friend or foe during her leadership campaign.

So it was, to the surprise of many and the delight of Europeans, when Truss showed up for the Prague summit and then spent time in clearly social exchanges with the French President, after which she declared him a friend

Clearly Britain and France can only benefit from a closer relationship, be it in resolving the Northern Ireland border issue, the influx of asylum seekers across the English Channel, fishing rights in the English Channel, the war in Ukraine and so on.

A revival of the Entente Cordiale can only be welcomed.

But all of this begs the question, “What’s going on?”

Why did Truss the Unruly become Macron’s mate?

I don’t know the answer, but (based on a few confidential conversations) I could hazard a guess – which, after all, is what most political commentators do most of the time.

And I suspect Truss has now grasped the size of the economic and financial mountain she faces and, after looking at her poll numbers, has concluded that the ongoing fighting with Brussels (which is nearing a trade war over Northern Ireland) one of which is fight she doesn’t need.

READ MORE: What else we learned from the Tory conference

Instead, she likely wants to laser-focus on the economy, hoping that her ambitious (some might say foolhardy) growth trajectory will yield results sooner rather than later.

Should that happen, and should their poll numbers rise, then perhaps the next election won’t be disastrous for the Tories – just very bad.

l Ivor Gaber is Professor of Political Journalism at the University of Sussex. He is a regular contributor to Times Radio and was a former political correspondent in Westminster Column by Ivor Gaber: What lies behind Liz’s friendship with Macron

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