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21 December 2021

Can Liz Truss, Boris Johnson’s “deliverer”, become his successor?

The Foreign Secretary, whose leadership ambitions once appeared over, has transformed her standing among Tory MPs and activists.

By Ailbhe Rea

While Boris Johnson’s standing within the Conservative Party has faltered in recent weeks, Liz Truss’s stock has risen. At the end of a torrid week that included the North Shropshire by-election defeat and the bruising resignation of Brexit minister David Frost, one Tory MP jokingly texted: “in Liz we Truss?” The recently appointed Foreign Secretary, 46, is now seen as one of the frontrunners to succeed Johnson (along with Rishi Sunak). Is she the answer to the Conservatives’ problems?

Truss’s rise has confounded those more familiar with her quirky public persona and strong opinions on cheese imports. The South West Norfolk MP (who was elected in 2010) was written off as a joke by many due to an unfortunate Conservative conference speech in 2014, when she was environment secretary. “In December, I’ll be in Beijing, opening up new pork markets,” she told the room with a grin, clearly expecting applause – which came, but a little too late, and accompanied by laughter. “We import two-thirds of our cheese,” she went on. “That. Is. A. Disgrace.” The speech went viral and became a meme, and Truss was left with a reputation as an unserious politician. 

Her political fortunes went from bad to worse in her next role, as justice secretary, when Truss suffered a major rift with the judiciary over her refusal to criticise the Daily Mail for a headline that described members of the judiciary as “enemies of the people”. So low was her political stock by then that even Theresa May felt able to demote her after the humiliation of the 2017 general election at which she lost her parliamentary majority. It seemed then that Truss was on her way out. 

But following her demotion to the role of chief secretary to the Treasury, Truss made a conscious decision to be more authentically herself, taking unlikely inspiration from Jeremy Corbyn. Truss would complain to her aides when they drafted remarks criticising Corbyn for being “ideological”, telling them that the only good thing about Corbyn was that he had a clear ideology. She became the May government’s most outspoken advocate of free markets, while using her social media profiles to display eccentricity and humour at a time when morale in the Conservative Party was low. 

[See also: What Liz Truss learned from Jeremy Corbyn]

Colleagues from that time describe her in one word: “ambitious”. And “in two words: very ambitious”, joked a figure from Theresa May’s Downing Street. They suspected her of leaking from cabinet meetings to suit her own purposes, and found that she was “interested in her own public profile”, as well as preoccupied with her relationship with the media – rarely turning down a flattering interview opportunity. But critics marvelled then, as now, at her resilience and her “extraordinary ability to tell the Conservative membership what it wants to hear”. She makes it look easy, they noted, but it certainly isn’t.

Truss has been building on her standing within the Conservative base ever since (she has led ConservativeHome’s Cabinet League Table members’ poll for a year). By the time of the Conservative leadership contest in July 2019, hers was a coveted endorsement. She became the first sitting cabinet minister to endorse Boris Johnson. He in turn gifted her a political comeback: the role of international trade secretary. That is crucial to understanding the ongoing dynamic between Johnson and his possible successor: she has been eyeing the top job for some time but also shows him sincere loyalty. 

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In that position, she continued her feel-good approach to politics with a dogged focus on securing post-Brexit trade deals, impressing colleagues with her ability to get things done and furthering her standing among the Tory grassroots. “I know how she comes across,” Downing Street figures would quip while she was in the international trade post, a nod to her quirky public persona. “But she’s not like that behind the scenes. She’s a really serious deliverer, a powerhouse.” Her tenacity in that role paved the way for a promotion, when Dominic Raab was ousted as foreign secretary following the US-UK debacle in Afghanistan. Suddenly, having been treated as a joke figure, Truss was the first female Conservative foreign secretary.

By giving Truss responsibility for the Brexit brief, has Johnson handed her a poisoned chalice in order to hamper her leadership prospects? If he has, it is certainly not deliberate. If he wanted to clip Truss’s wings or reduce her appeal to the Conservative grassroots, he would have removed the women and equalities brief from her, another way of signalling to both Tory members and MPs that Truss is ideologically aligned with them. That Johnson has not done this is evidence that he is not trying to rein her in.

Johnson has given Truss the Brexit brief because it makes sense, both from a practical and a political perspective. Critics and allies alike agree that it is logical to give the Foreign Secretary control over the relationship with the EU to prevent confused lines of responsibility. But the appointment also aids party management: while Truss made a strident case for Remain during the 2016 EU referendum, she is now seen within the Conservative Party – including the cabinet – as a committed Brexiteer of similar outlook to Frost. For backbenchers worried that Johnson will “go soft” on Europe, she represents “continuity Frost”. Her journey from Remainer to Brexiteer is not seen as a problem either: rather, her journey mirrors that of the Conservative Party as whole.

Truss has striking similarities to Johnson: blond, somewhat eccentric, a proponent of feel-good, optimistic politics. But while she is talked up as the party’s next possible prime minister, her allies are aware that her closeness to Johnson – in both politics and style – could be a hindrance. If the Conservative Party tires of blond, eccentric optimism, Truss would be the last person it wants as leader. That, and succeeding in the Brexit brief, is the Foreign Secretary’s challenge as she maps a route to No 10. But allies and critics alike agree on one thing: Liz Truss shouldn’t be underestimated.

[See also: How could Conservative MPs remove Boris Johnson as leader?]

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