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5 September 2022

Can Liz Truss resist becoming Boris 2.0?

Truss looks set to continue with the same toxic, dishonest, scorched-earth brand of politics practised by her predecessor.

By Martin Fletcher

Just 50 of the Foreign Secretary’s 356 fellow Tory MPs voted for Liz Truss in the first round of the contest, and as the campaign has gone on it has torn apart her parliamentary party. Much of the wider party membership is now suffering from “seller’s remorse” and would much prefer that Boris Johnson had remained in charge. Truss will be imposed on a sullen country that has had no say in the contest, meaning she will have no popular mandate of her own and precious little public support.

In short, despite the warnings from Labour of a political bounce for the Tories, she can expect little in the way of a political honeymoon as she sets out to tackle what even Nadhim Zahawi, the Chancellor, calls a “national economic emergency”.

In such circumstances Truss’s cabinet appointments, and her first words outside No 10 on 6 September, will be unusually important. They will offer her a brief chance to gain a hearing and a bit of breathing space. They will set not only the political direction of her government but, almost as important, its tone and style.

Will she continue with the same toxic, dishonest, rule-breaking, aggressively polarising, Daily Mail-driven, scorched-earth brand of politics practised by Johnson? Or will she seek to heal her fractured country and reach out to the millions of moderate Conservatives and centrist voters who have been so disgusted by the present prime minister’s egregious conduct?

Given that she lacks Johnson’s appeal to Red Wall voters, Truss should surely opt for the second course if the Conservatives are to have any hope of winning the next election. But the portents do not look good.

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Let’s start with the cabinet. It would be nice to think that Truss would appoint not talentless toadies, as Johnson did, but the most able and gifted members of her party irrespective of whether they are europhiles or eurosceptics, Thatcherites or One Nation Tories. Heaven knows, the country is going to need the strongest possible leadership team if it is to survive the coming winter.

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[See also: As the race for Tory leadership ends, Liz Truss prepares to enter No 10]

She may well give Tom Tugendhat, the able chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, a job in return for his surprising support for her leadership campaign, but not Jeremy Hunt despite the nine years he spent in previous cabinets. She is unlikely to include either Michael Gove or Rishi Sunak, arguably the most competent members of Johnson’s cabinet. Conversely, and depressingly, abrasive ideologues of distinctly dubious ability such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, Suella Braverman and Iain Duncan Smith are reportedly in line for senior positions, while even the rabidly right-wing John Redwood may be disinterred.

And what will Truss say on the steps of No 10 about her predecessor, who was forced from office in disgrace? Will she seek to distance herself from Johnson and his scandalous conduct? Will she promise to restore honesty and decency to public life, to abide by the ministerial code, even perhaps to create a powerful new ethics watchdog?

Again, the signs are not good. It is hard to remember a single occasion during Truss’s three years in Johnson’s cabinet when she voiced even the mildest criticism of his lies, cronyism, rule-breaking, acceptance of gifts and protection of nefarious supporters. Asked in an early leadership debate whether the prime minister was an honest man, she ducked the question. She has even said that she would, given a chance, vote to end the privileges committee’s investigation into whether Johnson lied to parliament over partygate.

Will Truss resist stoking division for political gain, as Johnson has done these past three years? Will she finally reach out to the 16 million Britons who (like her) voted Remain, seek to heal the bitter divisions over Brexit and cease sneering at the so-called “metropolitan elite”, as Johnson did so relentlessly? Will she stop scapegoating and demonising Brussels, immigrants, the “woke”, judges, civil servants and the BBC? Will she strive harder than Johnson has done to hold the Union with Scotland together?

She has yet to signal that she will do any of the above. Far from seeking a rapprochement with Brussels, she champions the unilateral and probably illegal ditching of the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit agreement and argues, absurdly, that “there is only one thing the EU understands and that is strength”.

She supports Priti Patel’s cruel and unworkable scheme to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. She preposterously accuses the civil service of wokery and anti-Semitism, and supports Johnson’s plans to cut 91,000 jobs. She has needlessly goaded Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, by calling her an “attention-seeker”. Her use of emotive terms like “handouts” and “idlers” hardly suggests emollience or compassion. She reportedly intends to retain the services of David Canzini, Johnson’s senior adviser, who is said to have instructed ministerial aides last May to “find the wedge issues in your department and hammer them”.

Truss shares one other perilous trait with Johnson, and that is a preference for boosterism and blind faith over empirical evidence and serious scrutiny. Despite abundant signs that Britain has lost its way – soaring energy bills, hospitals in crisis, widespread strikes, sewage in our seas – she continues to insist that it is “the greatest country on earth” and that “our best days are ahead of us”. Those who dare to disagree are unpatriotic. More pertinently, she proposes to cut taxes despite copious warnings that such a move will merely fuel inflation, and intends to ram an emergency budget through parliament without any independent economic forecasts. Gove, in an article for the Times, rightly accuses her of taking “a holiday from reality”.

It is conceivable that Truss has simply been saying what she has to say to win a leadership contest decided by the tiny, right-wing electorate that is the Tory party membership, and that she will adopt a more moderate and conciliatory tone when she addresses the country as a whole. I’m not holding my breath, though.

[See also: Some advice for Liz Truss as Britain’s new prime minister]