It has become a cliché to say that “nobody” won the 2017 election, but this, of course, isn’t true. The 2017 election was won by Liz Truss – it just took until this month’s cabinet reshuffle for the outcome to be confirmed.
The new Foreign Secretary was one of a trio of cabinet ministers who a gleeful ally of Theresa May’s told me I should “sell all my shares in” on the day that May called her ill-fated early election. The other two were Sajid Javid and Philip Hammond, who, along with Truss, were lined up for the sack had May won her expected landslide. Instead, May found her own job in peril. To survive, she had to publicly sacrifice her two highest-profile aides, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill.
It was a measure of Truss’s low standing at the time that even a weakened May was able to demote her, removing her from her cabinet post at the Ministry of Justice and giving her the role of chief secretary to the Treasury. (The post is usually an antechamber either for those on the way up – such as the present occupant, Simon Clarke, who is highly rated by Boris Johnson – or on the way down.)
Truss’s poor stock price, which was clear enough even without Downing Street investment advice, was largely the result of her loyalty to others. Privately Eurosceptic, she had backed Remain out of loyalty to David Cameron, which damaged her standing among Brexiteers. When Truss was justice secretary, in support of May she refused to condemn the Daily Mail – May’s strongest media ally – for describing judges as “enemies of the people”, which hurt her reputation among liberal Conservatives. She was seen as a star of the future when first elected in 2010, but in 2017 her career looked to have peaked already.
Faced with a slide in her fortunes, Truss rebuilt her brand, taking inspiration from an unlikely source: Jeremy Corbyn. Truss believed Corbyn’s success was in part due to a hunger among voters for politicians who spoke with conviction. Officials recall she would complain to her aides when they would draft remarks criticising Corbyn for being “ideological”, telling them that the only good thing about Corbyn was that he had a clear ideology.
Truss took control of her Twitter account, sending eye-catching tweets about the joy of smaller states and free markets – topics that were central to her role and of personal importance to her. And she deployed her sense of humour – something previously displayed only in private – to make barbed jokes in public speeches that stayed the right side of being loyal to May and gave a demoralised Tory party something to cheer about.
Truss’s belief that tomorrow belongs to mould-breakers is one reason why she concluded earlier than most MPs that Boris Johnson would shape the party’s immediate future. She was rewarded with a promotion to trade secretary in Johnson’s first cabinet. Truss then handed control of her Twitter account back to her aides and focused on making the party cheer not through witty speeches but through signing trade deals, and using the equalities brief to make occasional sallies into culture-war topics. From this position, Truss won a strong following among ordinary Tory members, regularly leading the rankings of potential future candidates for the leadership.
Like the other big winners in this month’s reshuffle – Nadhim Zahawi, Nadine Dorries, Anne-Marie Trevelyan and, indeed, Simon Clarke – she was an early and consistent supporter of the Prime Minister. As another member of that group said to me recently, “You know, he’s not an idiot: he knows who backed him with their fingers crossed behind their backs” – which may be one reason why Robert Buckland was sacked as justice secretary.
The repeated criticism of Johnson before this reshuffle was that he struggled to say “no” and that he lacked a clear direction. But in Truss and the others who gained promotion, the contours of what we might call “Johnsonism” are visible: a willingness to take sides in the culture wars; a robust commitment to free trade; and, in foreign policy, a greater alignment with the democracies of the old Commonwealth. The new Aukus defence deal between the US, Australia and the UK is the biggest item in Truss’s in-tray.
Her political transformation over recent years has left people speculating about whether she might be heading to the very top. A party that has known only victories under Johnson might one day be tempted by a politician who has many of his qualities and shares much of his outlook. As one Conservative put it to me, Truss is the best-placed candidate in the event the next Tory leadership election takes place after “ten glorious years of Boris”.
Among her potential rivals, Rishi Sunak is regarded as the front-runner to succeed Johnson, while Priti Patel is also well-liked by her Tory colleagues. In the past, foreign secretaries’ leadership ambitions have been curtailed by the need to spend much of their time travelling overseas. But Truss has a good reason to remain in view. Johnson has given her the additional brief of Equalities Minister, and with it a platform to speak on domestic issues that will allow her to woo the party faithful. This reflects another truth: because Truss is, ultimately, the minister who is politically closest to Johnson, she is also the one whose future prospects most rely on making him a success.
This article appears in the 22 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Great Power Play