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5 September 2022

From the NS archive: Iron Lady 2.0

18 July 2012: Liz Truss, a back-bench MP, is emerging as the ideological torch-bearer for a new generation of Tories.

By Rafael Behr

In 2012, Liz Truss was a Tory backbencher young enough to have studied Margaret Thatcher at GCSE. She was, however, already being touted as a future government minister. In this interview by the magazine’s then political editor Rafael Behr, she explained how she had crossed the political divides from her Labour-supporting family, to the Liberal Democrats as a student, to the Tories. For Truss at that time, education was the key to changing Britain and achieving greater social mobility. She was also an unapologetic free-marketeer. Behr reports that when, during the course of their afternoon together, Truss was asked “Are you going to be prime minister one day?” she laughed.

Elizabeth Truss is in a hurry. I am hardly out of the car that has driven us to a new academy in Thetford, south-west Norfolk, and the local MP has somehow bounded 20 yards down the road. This capacity to cover ground quickly isn’t just a defence against the rain. Truss speaks much as she walks: briskly striding through local and national policy obsessions – education, childcare, transport, agriculture. The school isn’t even a scheduled stop. We are supposed to be going to meet with some local childminders – Truss has a plan to reform the regulations that, she believes, are limiting supply and keeping costs too high for parents. But we happened to be talking about maths and she wants me to meet an admired local teacher. (She also has a plan to make the subject compulsory beyond the age of 16.)

The first half of the morning has been taken up with a campaign to get the Brecks – an ecologically distinctive swath of forested East Anglian landscape – recognised as a tourist destination to rival Norfolk’s more popular Broads. Between stops, the back seat of an aide’s red Mini – “the Trussmobile” – serves as a newsroom, with quotes to be drafted for local reporters and regular news updates on Twitter. This is usually what it is like travelling with MPs during election campaigns, not a week before the long summer recess.

It is not surprising that with so much drive, Truss, who will soon turn 38, is tipped for great things in the Tory party. Her name often crops up in conversations about who, from the generation of MPs fresh to parliament in 2010, will get a foothold on the ministerial ladder in the next reshuffle. South-west Norfolk has recognised her anointed status. “You’re clearly being groomed for big things,” says one of the childminders at the end of the meeting. “Are you going to be prime minister one day?” Truss laughs.

[see also: Why Liz Truss is unfit to be prime minister]

She first got involved in politics while still at comprehensive school in Leeds. Her parents, both public-sector workers, were on the left. As a child she was taken on CND marches to shout slogans outside naval bases; she helped her mother make mock-nuclear missiles out of rolled-up paper. As part of a media studies GCSE, she did a project on the fall of Margaret Thatcher entitled “The End of an Era”. It was the beginning of a journey to Conservatism. “I was fed up with Labour and a lot of my teachers were really bolshie about Margaret Thatcher,” says Truss over lunch at a mid-range brasserie (pine floors and locally sourced produce). Truss reacted against a “right-on” culture in her school that seemed to celebrate mediocrity and tolerate underperformance from pupils and staff alike. “What I observed was that being a bad teacher didn’t mean you got kicked out of the school and a lot of children were let down by the low expectations teachers had of them,” she says.

[see also: Labour may have more to fear from Liz Truss than Rishi Sunak]

Truss joined the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives seemed like “another world”, dominated by a much older and culturally alien generation. She became president of the Lib Dems at Oxford University, where she studied PPE (philosophy, politics and economics – the de rigueur qualification for wannabe Westminster apparatchiks). Only in her final year did she become a Tory. The conversion was prompted, she says, by the discovery that the principles of individualism and self-reliance that had once made her a Liberal were better served by Conservative economics.

It was not a fashionable choice in the late Nineties. “There was a bit of an ‘eurgh’ factor around the Tories. You could see the whole thing was going wrong.” The problem, Truss says, was the Tories’ failure to adjust to cultural changes that accompanied the economic liberalisation of the Eighties. “Thatcher had unleashed a new era of social liberalism and the government just didn’t catch up with that. They were out of step with the way people lived.” The perception of a party locked in bitter reaction against the tolerant face of Britain helped keep the Tories out of power for 13 years. Changing that image – “decontaminating the brand” – was the central proposition of David Cameron’s leadership in opposition.

After Oxford, Truss worked for Shell, then Cable & Wireless. She married and had two daughters; she served as a local Tory councillor in Greenwich and contested an unwinnable Labour seat in 2005 before securing a safe parliamentary berth in Norfolk. That selection was threatened when members of the local Conservative association threw a moralising tantrum over old newspaper reports that she had had an extramarital affair. Colleagues say the furore, though plainly stressful at the time, was an important part of her political training – a baptism of media fire. It was a thinly disguised attack on Cameron’s “modernising” project, of which Truss was judged to be an agent. The episode introduced a phrase to the political lexicon to describe angry rural Conservative men: the Turnip Taliban. (“We’ve all moved on,” is her polite but visibly pained verdict today.)

She now describes herself as a “postmoderniser”. While Cameron had to fight pitched battles with older Tories over issues such as gay rights, the younger generation is instinctively relaxed about that sort of thing. Yet they are more ideological in other ways. Cameron’s project deliberately eschewed dogmas, part of its attempt to woo voters by presenting the party in softer focus. The new generation has a keener Thatcherite edge. “The idea that it all went wrong in the Eighties is just wrong,” says Truss when I ask about the legacy of the Iron Lady. She rejects the leftist version of history that sees Thatcher causing inequality, division and social corrosion. The roots, she says, go deeper. “We have failed over the past 40 years to educate people well and that has been a major cause of our social mobility problems. What is the reason a lot of professions are full of people who have been educated at public school and who have come from the top of society? That’s the legacy of failed education policy in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties.”

Far from achieving hegemony, Truss argues, Conservative ideas failed to penetrate the state education system enough. “There was not a Conservative ethos in my school and I’m sure there wasn’t across many schools in the country.” She is a devotee of Michael Gove’s school reforms and helped shape that agenda in opposition while working as deputy director of Reform, a think tank largely dedicated to applying free-market thinking to public services.

In parliament, Truss has established herself as an ideological organiser and prolific pamphleteer, founding the Free Enterprise Group of MPs – a steely, pro-market faction calling for deregulation and lower taxes. It is this agenda that Ed Miliband believes to be in terminal decline. Labour views the financial crisis as the death rattle of the Thatcherite economic model. According to this view, Britain is rejecting the cult of unimpeded market forces and the Tories are intellectually incapable of grasping the new mood; their political illiteracy is said to be proven by George Osborne’s decision to cut the 50p top rate of income tax.

Not surprisingly, Truss disagrees. “We had the highest personal tax rate in the G20. The issue we face is about competitiveness and productivity… As a party we need to lead the debate on that. We need to challenge the politics of class and envy.” (Truss says “class” with a long, southern “A”, although the rest of her vowels lilt with her Yorkshire schooling.) “It would have been inconsistent if we hadn’t reduced the 50p tax rate. We’ve got to say we’re beyond political tactics. What we care about is the country’s future.”

Like nearly all Tory backbenchers, Truss seems uniquely focused on what a majority Conservative government should do. Her credentials as a former Lib Dem – “very former”, she corrects – do not make her any more enthusiastic about sharing power. She co-authored a book last year entitled After Coalition, considering what Conservatism liberated from Nick Clegg would look like. A follow-up – Britannia Unchained – is planned for September. “I don’t want to see Coalition 2.0. I want to see Conservatives take the lessons of modernisation and move on.”

I get the impression that Truss’s generation is impatient for the current parliament to be over so they can get on with being ideological Conservatives, unimpeded by wishy-washy Lib Dems. But is their own leadership also holding them back? I sense the party no longer looks to Cameron for inspiration. Does it? The question provokes the first long pause in her rapid-fire responses. “Lots of new ideas are coming from the new intake and back-bench MPs. I think that’s always where new ideas emerge from.” And maybe not just ideas.

A state-school-educated working mum from the north of England, fully signed up to the easy social attitudes of modern Britain but with a Thatcherite bite that plays well across her party – Truss is a very different kind of Tory from the patrician Old Etonian, scion of stockbrokers and aristocrats, currently serving as Prime Minister. I remind her of the childminder earlier who asked if she was heading for the very top. “It’s a funny question when I haven’t even had a government job.” Then it’s back to the car, wellies out of the boot for an afternoon striding across fields and talking to farmers about the weather and global commodity prices. The Trussmobile moves up another gear.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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