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12 July 2022

Will Liz Truss be the next prime minister?

From Brexit to front-line photo ops, admirers and critics reveal the many contradictions of Whitehall’s “disrupter-in-chief”.

By Martin Fletcher

In the distant days of mid-June, I spoke to a source close to Liz Truss. He flatly denied the Foreign Secretary had her eyes on No 10. “She’s 100 per cent focused on being Foreign Secretary,” he said. “I reject any sense that there’s leadership manoeuvring. It’s totally for the birds.”

That was then. Within hours of Johnson resigning as Conservative Party leader on 7 July, Truss had cut short her attendance at a G20 meeting in Indonesia and announced her bid to replace him shortly after. She is now in the final round of the race alongside Sunak, and is probably the preferred candidate of most right-wing Tories.

To her admirers, Truss is a second Margaret Thatcher – an image she does little to discourage. Like Thatcher, she is not of the establishment. She was raised by Labour-supporting parents and was a Liberal Democrat in her late teens; she attended a northern comprehensive school and went on to acquire a convert’s zeal for free markets, low taxes and small government. She is a scourge of wokery, political correctness and “fashionable” thinking. 

Thick-skinned, intensely ambitious and often underestimated, she speaks her mind, breaks china and overrides Whitehall’s natural caution. Truss likes the fact that Britain is “raucous and rowdy”, as she told students at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 2018. She characterised herself in the same speech as a “disrupter-in-chief”. One former aide described her to me as “the most impressive person I ever worked with – so focused, outcome-orientated and visionary”. A senior Tory told me: “She’s someone you’d go tiger shooting with. She’s very gutsy, self-assured and tough when most other people would shy away.” She dresses – and acts – in bold colours, not pastels.

[See also: Labour has no reason to fear Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss]

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Those attributes have carried Truss far. In 2014 David Cameron appointed her environment secretary and, at 38, she was the youngest female member of his cabinet. She has since become the first female lord chancellor and the first female Conservative foreign secretary. She is now the cabinet’s longest continuously serving member, having held six ministerial jobs under three prime ministers.

But Truss’s detractors see her in a very different light, and shudder at the idea of her becoming Britain’s next prime minister. They regard her as an intellectual lightweight who parrots cod-Thatcherite mantras; as a relentless leaker and practitioner of tabloid diplomacy; and as a shameless opportunist who morphed from committed Remainer to hardline Brexiteer to advance her leadership ambitions. She calls for global alliances while simultaneously backing Britain’s departure from the EU, and preaches free trade while supporting Britain’s withdrawal from the world’s largest free trade area.

Her critics scoff at the Thatcher comparison. They say she lacks the gravitas, vision and principle. Thatcher “was in an entirely different league”, snorted a former civil servant who worked with the Iron Lady. Of Truss, a veteran diplomat told me, “She’s doing a pretty good job of self-promotion, if not of being Foreign Secretary.” 

Johnson’s former chief strategist Dominic Cummings has repeatedly described Truss as a “human hand grenade,” and in a recent interview said the foreign secretary was “as close to properly crackers as anybody I have met in parliament”. In his view – and this is saying something – she would be “even worse” than Boris Johnson as prime minister.

Mary Elizabeth Truss was born in Oxford in 1975, the oldest of four siblings and the only girl. Her father, John, was a maths professor; her mother, Priscilla, was a nurse and teacher. Both were “to the left of Labour”, Truss has said.

When she was four the family moved to Paisley, near Glasgow, where her father taught at the technology college. Her mother took her to CND protests, and on anti-Thatcher demonstrations. In 1983 Truss volunteered to play Thatcher in mock hustings at her primary school, securing zero votes.

After a year in Canada in the late 1980s, Truss’s father became a professor at Leeds University and the family settled in the city’s middle-class suburb of Roundhay. Truss has said that she went to a “genuine comprehensive”, though Roundhay School was a former grammar school of some repute. In a 2012 interview with the New Statesman she claimed the teachers were “bolshie” left-wingers who denounced Thatcher, preferred lessons about racism and sexism to English or maths, and failed to push their students. But another former pupil, IT consultant William Thirsk-Gaskill, who attended Roundhay shortly before Truss, told me: “I simply don’t recognise her description of the school.” 

Truss says applying for Oxbridge was regarded by her teachers as a “snobby thing to do”, but that did not stop her securing a place at Merton College, Oxford, to study politics, philosophy and economics. There, Truss was a “creative thinker”, one of her former university tutors told me. “She looked at questions and problems in ways other people didn’t… My overwhelming memory is of someone whose essays would be entirely unpredictable. Sometimes they would be fantastically brilliant – and sometimes they were a bit off the wall.”

She has displayed that “creative thinking” as Foreign Secretary. Faced with the intractable problem of the Northern Ireland protocol, she has produced a solution more extreme than anything her predecessor as chief negotiator with the European Union, the hardline David Frost, had come up with. Truss’s approach has been: to scrap unilaterally large parts of that agreement, even at the risk of triggering a trade war with the EU; to undermine European unity against Russian aggression; and to trash the UK’s reputation as a law-abiding state.

[ See also: Rishi vs Liz is the excruciating summer spectacle we’ve all been waiting for]

Before that, she broke with convention to secure Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release from Iran, a goal that had eluded three previous foreign secretaries. She enlisted Oman as an intermediary, paid a historical debt of $400m and cut a deal with Tehran that excluded an American hostage who holds British citizenship, Morad Tahbaz. According to one well-placed diplomatic source, in doing so she “pissed off” Washington DC.

Truss also became a Liberal Democrat during her Oxford years, albeit a radical one. She joined demonstrations against the British National Party in east London, and a mass trespass at Twyford Down to protest against Tory legislation curbing civil liberties. A columnist in Cherwell, the student newspaper, dubbed her “Liz ‘PC’s her middle name’ Truss”. 

As president of the university’s Liberal Democrats, Truss clashed with the then party leader, Paddy Ashdown, at the 1994 autumn conference. She proposed a motion to abolish the monarchy; Ashdown was aghast. An aide brokered a meeting at which Ashdown believed Truss had agreed to make her speech and then remit the motion to avoid a vote. Truss duly spoke, declaring, “We Liberal Democrats… do not believe people are born to rule.” But she failed to remit the motion. Ashdown stormed from the stage “absolutely effing and blinding”, an aide told me. “She had significant balls even that long ago.”

By the time Truss graduated in 1996 she had joined the Conservative Party, then deeply unpopular after 17 years in power. She has said she did so because of her growing belief in individualism and self-reliance. She had also met Tories for the first time and realised “they don’t have two heads and don’t eat babies”. 

Her mother has since campaigned for her, but her father was “horrified”. He joined an anti-Brexit march in 2016, and emails his daughter about policies he finds objectionable. “My dad is still struggling,” she told Nick Robinson’s Political Thinking podcast in December 2021. “Sometimes he thinks I’m a sleeper working from inside to overthrow the regime.” 

Truss met her husband, Hugh O’Leary, an accountant, at the 1997 Conservative Party conference. They married in 2000 and now live in a Greenwich townhouse, where Truss keeps a Union flag for use in video interviews. They have two teenage daughters, Frances and Liberty, who attend a selective state school. When she has time, Truss goes biking with them, or helps with their homework. Once a week, as a treat, there is a family Deliveroo.

From Oxford University, Truss went to work first for Shell, then Cable & Wireless, while simultaneously pursuing a political career. In 2001, aged 25, she fought the safe Labour seat of Hemsworth in West Yorkshire. In 2005 she stood in the more marginal West Yorkshire constituency of Calder Valley, losing by just 1,367 votes. She was also a Greenwich councillor, and deputy director of the centre-right think tank Reform. 

Following the Conservatives’ 2005 defeat, Cameron set out to “modernise” the party. Truss, a young, northern, state-educated woman, was put on the candidates’ “A list”, and adopted for the safe Tory seat of South West Norfolk.

There was a hitch when her constituency association learned that she had had an extramarital affair with Mark Field, the Conservative MP who had mentored her. Some members, who became known as the “Turnip Taliban”, demanded her deselection. She fought back, defeating a motion to remove her by 132 votes to 37. “It was a baptism of fire,” she said later. “And actually, even though it was a really unpleasant thing to go through, it made me stronger.” Her marriage survived. Field’s did not. 

Truss was elected to parliament with a 13,140 majority in 2010. “She hit the ground running,” said a contemporary. She founded the Free Enterprise Group of MPs, championing deregulation and lower taxes. She co-authored Britannia Unchained, a paean to free market economics that described the British as “among the worst idlers in the world”. The book was written with four other members of the 2010 Tory intake – including Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab, all now cabinet ministers and ideological allies. (Asked if she had any Labour friends, a source close to Truss thought hard before remembering that she has a jogging partner “not of the Tory persuasion”.)

Within two years of Truss’s entry into the House of Commons, the Times was calling her a “leading back-bench voice on policy”. She impressed both Cameron and the chancellor, George Osborne, and was appointed a junior education minister. It was a job that played to her interests. She fought to improve maths teaching, a personal hobby horse, and banned calculators for primary school exams; the Spectator named her “Minister to Watch” in its 2012 Parliamentarian of the Year awards. But her efforts to reduce childcare costs were blocked by the Coalition government’s deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg.

In 2014 Truss joined the cabinet as secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs – a job that suited her less well. “She gave no indication of being interested in one of the most exciting briefs in government,” said Shaun Spiers, the then head of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. A senior environment correspondent for a national newspaper agrees: “She didn’t seem to have any ideas. She just seemed to be keeping the seat warm.” In her defence, aides say she coped with widespread floods, worked hard – in this role and later as international trade secretary – to persuade the US to lift bans on British beef and lamb (removed in 2020 and 2021 respectively) and promoted exports, lobbying British embassies to serve British food. They say she mastered complex briefs and worked hard to make the civil service machine deliver for her, even reading its monthly magazine, Civil Service World.

[ See also: It’s absurd to say the Conservative Party isn’t ready for a non-white leader ]

But her two-year tenure is remembered primarily for a speech to the Tories’ 2014 party conference that even a former adviser describes as “epically bad”. Truss bemoaned the fact that Britain imports two-thirds of the cheese it consumes. “That. Is. A. Disgrace,” she declared to a bemused audience, managing to mangle her timing, pitch and facial expressions. 

While she has improved, neither public speaking nor broadcast interviews are her forte, colleagues admit. Truss has a flat, slightly metallic voice. She can appear awkward, sometimes invading people’s personal space. But in private, they say, she is funny, irreverent and capable of charm. She will join karaoke sessions at Christmas parties or leaving dos. “She has a spectacularly bad voice,” said one former adviser. “She loves classic pop songs, but my God she can murder them.”

Truss also has phenomenal energy. One of her Foreign Office team (known internally as the “Court of Queen Liz”) told me: “We’re constantly knackered, trailing in her wake. She’s indefatigable… She eats, sleeps and drinks the job.” He remembers her writing a major speech at midnight after 17 hours of gruelling trade negotiations in Tokyo.

She fuels herself with double espressos, burritos and meatball subs. “I’ve never seen a human being drink more espressos in a day,” said the same adviser. “And I never ceased to be amazed at how many carbs she could eat without putting on a pound. She must have the metabolic rate of a Tasmanian devil.”

Truss was environment secretary at the time of the 2016 Brexit referendum. In his memoirs, David Cameron wrote that she “wavered” on the issue – but she nonetheless backed his Remain campaign and argued the case for continued EU membership with apparent conviction. “This is a debate about our country,” she told the Guardian in May 2016. “People who care… about us being an outward-facing, internationally focused country, go out and vote.” She signed a cross-party declaration with Ed Miliband, Ed Davey and Caroline Lucas which described Leave campaigners as “extreme and outdated”. EU membership magnified Britain’s global influence, Truss argued: “When you are speaking for 500 million people, that really carries weight.” 

It is hard to square those views with the Brexit cheerleader Truss is now. In a keynote speech to Chatham House in December 2021, she reversed her 2016 argument: “After almost 50 years in the EU, once again all the levers of international policy are in our hands – diplomacy, development, trade and security… As an outward-looking sovereign nation, we are rebuilding our muscle to fulfil the promise of global Britain.”

One explanation for her Damascene conversion is that she backed Remain only out of deference to Cameron and Osborne. “She would have to have felt very strongly to have flouted them, and she didn’t,” Paul Goodman, editor of the ConservativeHome website, told me. Another source close to Truss said she was “always a reluctant Remainer”. 

In interviews, Truss claims to have changed her mind on the questionable grounds that Brexit’s benefits have become clearer, while the “portents of doom” have failed to materialise. The less charitable explanation is that she realised, post-referendum, that her political ambitions were dead unless she rapidly became a born-again Brexiteer. Mujtaba Rahman, a leading Brexit analyst who runs the Eurasia Group in Europe, told me: “I don’t think she’s a Leaver or Remainer. I think she’s hugely opportunistic and is looking at the quickest and most effective way to land the job at No 10.” A former ambassador was blunter: “You can’t be a member of Team Boris unless you go along with all the Brexit mythology and bollocks.”

When Theresa May replaced Cameron as prime minister, she promoted Truss to justice secretary. Truss had no legal background, and it proved a poisoned chalice. The national mood was sulphurous, and the government clashed repeatedly with the judiciary over its attempts to implement Brexit.

Those tensions erupted in November 2016 with an infamous Daily Mail front page calling three High Court judges “Enemies of the people”; they had ruled that the government required the consent of a mutinous parliament before notifying Brussels of its intention to leave the EU. The judiciary demanded Truss defend its independence. No 10 refused to let her do so.

“She had two choices and both were shit,” said one former aide. Defying No 10 and condemning the Mail would have been “rapidly career-ending”; failure to do so looked like a derogation of her constitutional duty. Truss sought a middle way, arguing that press freedom was as important as judicial independence, but the judiciary never forgave her. A few months later May demoted her to chief secretary to the Treasury. Kirsty Buchanan, her special adviser at the time, later wrote, “It was one of the few times that I saw her characteristic optimism falter.” 

But Truss is nothing if not resilient. The self-styled “economics geek” was in her element at the Treasury, and rebounded as a fully fledged fiscal hawk and libertarian. In a 2018 speech to the LSE, she lauded Britain as a “nation of Airbnb-ing, Deliveroo-eating, Uber-riding freedom fighters”. She went on to rebuke cabinet colleagues: “It’s not macho just to demand more money. It’s much tougher to demand better value and challenge the blob of vested interests within your department.” She poked fun at Michael Gove, then environment secretary: “Too often we’re hearing about not drinking too much, eating too many doughnuts, or enjoying the warmth of our wood-burning Goves… I mean stoves.” She added: “There’s enough hot air and smoke at the environment department already.”

She was reprimanded by May, but the prime minister was by then a spent force. Truss started posting pictures of herself on social media, sitting in Tornado jets or whizzing down zip wires, suggesting she had begun to see herself as a potential successor. She considered standing after May’s resignation in May 2019, but instead became the first cabinet minister to back Johnson’s successful leadership bid.

Johnson liked Truss’s positivity and boosterism, and made her his international trade secretary. For two years she flew around the world, striking trade deals and posting endless photographs – usually standing with foreign counterparts in front of the Union flag. Meanwhile Tory party members repeatedly voted her the most popular member of the cabinet in ConservativeHome’s monthly surveys.

Critics say the deals she cut mostly replicated the trading arrangements Britain had enjoyed as an EU member (her ministry was nicknamed “the Department for Cut and Paste”). “She got trade deals rolled over and managed to portray that as a great triumph for the post-Brexit world,” one former Conservative minister told me. The deals did not begin to compensate for Britain’s departure from the single market, nor did they include the Brexiteers’ promised deal with the US.

[ See also: Rishi Sunak is already running out of time to save his campaign]

Truss simultaneously served as Minister for Women and Equalities, a role she continues to use to bash political correctness. She rejects quotas, unconscious-bias training, diversity statements and virtue signalling. The goal should be equal opportunities, not equal outcomes, she has argued. 

Johnson promoted Truss to Foreign Secretary last September. It was probably not a job she coveted, the former Conservative minister Rory Stewart told me. “I remember Liz Truss once saying to me something like, ‘Rory, I cannot understand why you are so interested in foreign affairs. The very last thing I would like to be is foreign secretary.’ As often with Liz, I couldn’t quite tell if she was joking.”

But after sparring with Raab over the use of the foreign secretary’s country retreat at Chevening (the two ministers were ordered to share), Truss threw herself into the role. Britain had to “dump the baggage, ditch the introspection and step forward”, she declared in that Chatham House speech three months after taking office. “The greatest country on earth” should lead a “global network of liberty” against the “maelstrom of militancy, mistrust and misinformation” deployed by authoritarian regimes. She used the word “freedom” nearly 20 times in a speech that verged on jingoism, and which one former ambassador described to me as “toe-curlingly awful”. 

But for all her talk of liberty, Truss was unable to name a single occasion when she had challenged Gulf states over human rights abuses during a recent appearance before the Foreign Affairs Committee. “We are not dealing with a perfect world,” she protested.

The invasion of Ukraine has been grist to her hawkish mill. She has demanded total sanctions on Russia and ever heavier weaponry for Ukraine, because “this is a time for courage, not for caution”. She encouraged British volunteers to join the fight, before being slapped down by No 10. She wants more defence spending, because “bullies respond only to strength”, and insists that Russia must be defeated and not appeased. At one point the Kremlin blamed Truss’s hawkishness for its decision to put its nuclear arsenal on alert. Her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, has said that negotiations with her are “like a conversation with a deaf person”.

One aide told me that Truss’s approach is “symptomatic of her broader world-view and where she thinks Britain should be in the world, which is basically at the front of the peloton”. But in emails to me, a senior former diplomat deplored Truss’s “excessive stridency about Ukraine, cultivating illusions about the outcome”. He added: “Truss (and Boris) are getting shriller and shriller about Ukraine. It is ridiculous to suggest that they can push the Russians back out of the Donbas. No one else believes that… She gives the impression of being ready to fight to the last Ukrainian.”

Writing in the Guardian in April, Simon Jenkins observed scathingly: “This must be the first Tory leadership contest fought on the frontiers of Russia.” Truss posed for Thatcher-esque photographs in a tank in Estonia, and wearing a fur hat in Moscow’s Red Square. (Unlike previous foreign secretaries, she travels with a photographer or videographer in tow.) Meanwhile the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, has been markedly more measured. His comprehensive demolition of Putin’s historical claim to Ukraine in an essay published in January 2022 had ambassadors wondering why the Foreign Office had not produced such a document.

For all her allies’ protestations to the contrary, there seems little doubt that Truss has been “on manoeuvres” for many months. She has courted MPs at “fizz with Liz” receptions. She, or those close to her, have judiciously leaked her opposition to unpopular measures such as tax rises and Covid restrictions. “She’s looking for every photo-op in the book,” one former ambassador told me last month. “She’s very happy to do ‘global Britain’ and stuff it to the Europeans.” 

Truss’s recent handling of the Northern Ireland protocol negotiations has only fuelled those suspicions. In January she was conciliatory, inviting her EU interlocutor, Maroš Šefčovič, to Chevening, where they played post-dinner billiards and walked in the gardens. Six months on, she has embraced the purist, uncompromising position of the European Research Group (ERG) despite deep concerns in Whitehall, the cabinet and even No 10.

Sources close to Truss blame EU intransigence for her transformation. “Liz came up against a brick wall,” one told me. ConservativeHome’s Paul Goodman argued that her position was of a piece with her personality: “Politicians are warriors or healers. She’s a warrior. I think she reached the conclusion, after some early diplomacy, that this is an issue on which the government has to fight.”

Her critics claim otherwise. “She’s had a look at the political calculation,” a former Tory minister told me a couple of weeks ago. Courting the ERG “makes sense for her, because I don’t think she has a naturally large constituency in the Conservative parliamentary party. If she can win over the ERG, it could be really hard to stop her.”

It was a very risky move, he added. Unilaterally rewriting the Brexit treaty could trigger a trade war in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. “She must appreciate how this could go horribly wrong. [But] she may think a vacancy for the leadership of the Conservative Party will emerge sooner than the consequences.” And indeed it has.

Conservative leadership elections are notoriously unpredictable, but Truss is probably the favoured candidate of right-wing Tory MPs, having been careful not to upset Johnson’s supporters by criticising any of his many transgressions. Whether, after 12 years of Tory rule, Truss and her robust right-wing views would appeal to the national electorate is another matter. She is not a natural communicator, nor is she obviously charismatic or particularly well-known, and a YouGov poll earlier this year showed that just 18 per cent of respondents liked her. 

Many Conservatives also worry about a woman whose Oxford tutor described her as alternatively “brilliant” or “off the wall” seizing the reins in No 10. A Downing Street insider, noting Truss’s rhetoric on Ukraine, recently declared himself mightily relieved she was not currently prime minister. “She might,” he said, “start a nuclear war.”

[See also: Tory leadership race: candidates are desperately short of new ideas]

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