Having tentatively predicted that Liz Truss would become prime minister in the autumn, the likelihood is that this will now happen on 5 September. She has already overcome her biggest hurdle – winning the support of enough Conservative MPs to make the final two – and all the polling suggests she has a commanding lead with party members. Anecdotally, I hear much the same thing.
Truss is a bit of a mystery to many close followers of politics. She can be a poor communicator – the “pork markets” speech will not be forgotten by those who saw it – and her record as a minister is mixed, but she looks set to reach the pinnacle of British politics. She voted Remain but has reached the final two thanks to the support of the most die-hard Brexiteers. She was once a Liberal Democrat calling for the abolition of the monarchy but now finds her support on the right. She is accused of being both an inflexible ideologue and a flip-flopping opportunist.
Before exploring this further, I have a confession to make that is unlikely to endear me to many New Statesman readers. I rather like her. On a personal level, I have always found her engaging, a bit quirky and with a teasing sense of humour. Contrary to the impression she sometimes gives in public, she can be very good fun.
Her political skills can be underrated. She can be perceptive – I recall her telling me about the UK’s political realignment long before the idea became commonplace. In contrast to the current Prime Minister, she is not motivated by the desire to hold office for the sake of it but wishes to gain power because she wants to do things. She is hard-working and diligent. In general, she does have a clear sense of direction and set of values (small state, libertarian), notwithstanding her changed allegiances.
I got to know her a little when we were both involved in an organisation called the National Association of Conservative Graduates in the late 1990s and our paths crossed again when competing for selection in a safe Conservative seat in 2003 (fortunately for me, the good folk of South West Hertfordshire Conservative Association chose the local candidate).
[See also: Will Liz Truss’s tax cuts work?]
In government, we had many dealings when I was chief secretary to the Treasury and she was in charge of the Ministry of Justice – a troublesome department for the Treasury. She succeeded me as chief secretary and, after a brief spell at the Department for Work and Pensions, I found myself doing her old job at the MoJ (which continued to be a troublesome department for the Treasury). I generally found her a tough but fair interlocutor. She was certainly an enthusiastic supporter – on value-for-money grounds – of my desire to reduce the prison population.
It would be fair to say that her time at the MoJ was not a happy one. She was caught up in the row over the Daily Mail’s “Enemies of the People” headline and she should have condemned it. In mitigation, she was under immense pressure from the then-powerful No 10 not to do so. She was in a weak political position and lacked an instinctive understanding of her responsibilities as lord chancellor. It damaged an already uncomfortable relationship with the judiciary and she is still bruised by the experience. It was a role for which she was not well suited.
There is a thread that runs through Truss’s career – her youthful republicanism, her libertarianism, her desire to take on the education “blob” as a junior minister, her difficulties with the judiciary, her dismissal of concerns about a no-deal Brexit (about which we frequently disagreed in cabinet), her support for Boris Johnson, and her current criticism of both Treasury orthodoxy and the Bank of England. She is by both temperament and conviction a rebel, an anti-establishment figure wary – even dismissive – of authority and received wisdom. She sees herself – and here the echoes of Margaret Thatcher are unmistakable – as an outsider who is bolder and more ambitious than the risk-averse, defeatist, privileged, establishment men whom she finds so condescending.
If the polls are to be believed, it is what the party members are seeing as well. They want a leader who, through strength of will, will somehow deliver the enterprise economy she promises, take on the “liberal elite” and deliver the supposed benefits of Brexit. They want another optimistic insurgent.
One worry, however, must be that Truss’s self-confidence may be misplaced. What if the Treasury is right about the risks of unfunded tax cuts? What if demographic pressures mean that public spending will have to rise? What if the EU cannot be strong-armed into repealing the Northern Ireland protocol? What if our long-term prosperity depends upon the strength and credibility of the institutions which she disparages? What if her policies do scare the markets? What if, after all, expert opinion on a multitude of matters turns out to be right and Truss’s instincts turn out to be wrong? Stubbornness, in those circumstances, is no virtue.
Challenging received wisdom is one thing, but assuming that the experts are always wrong is another. The biggest risk of a Prime Minister Truss – and I think it is a very real and substantial risk – is that her determination is not tempered by realism and a willingness to listen to expert opinion. Conservative Party members admire her ideological clarity, but they are taking the most enormous gamble on her judgement.
[See also: Will Liz Truss’s tax cuts work?]