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14 February 2022

Martin Fletcher

Why Liz Truss is unfit to be prime minister

Love her or loathe her, Margaret Thatcher was a formidable stateswoman. Truss is just a third-rate tribute act.

That our Prime Minister – a serial liar, a leader who partied while his people died, a man who put dogs and cats ahead of human lives as Britain staged a humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan – should seek to portray himself as a latter-day Churchill is grotesque.

It is scarcely less preposterous that Liz Truss, our preening, flyweight Foreign Secretary, should seek to present herself as another Margaret Thatcher by riding tanks, posing fur-hatted for photos in Moscow’s Red Square and presenting herself as a champion of “freedom”. Love her or loathe her, Thatcher was a formidable stateswoman and heavyweight politician who changed the course of British history. Truss is just a third-rate tribute act.

Take Truss’s hapless trip to Moscow last week. Admittedly Thatcher was prime minister not foreign secretary, but she commanded respect not ridicule. She would never have walked into the sort of trap that Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, set for Truss. She would never have tolerated the public mockery he heaped on Truss and her “slogans” at their joint press conference. 

She would have put Lavrov on the defensive. She would have delivered not a vague threat of sanctions (undermined by years of government inaction against the river of tainted Russian money flowing into London), but tough, specific and credible measures that targeted, among others, Svetlana Polyakova, Lavrov’s alleged mistress; she and her family reportedly own real estate in Russia and the UK worth about £10m.

During her first official visit to Moscow in 1987 Thatcher gave a 45-minute television interview to three Russian journalists who had been ordered to embarrass her over Britain’s possession of a nuclear arsenal. She instead turned the tables by delivering a detailed discourse on Soviet nuclear aggression, saying: “Doesn’t the bully go for the weak person, not for the strong?” Her performance stunned the Soviet Union.

Thatcher certainly understood the power of pictures to convey messages, but she would not have used a trip to Moscow as a glorified photo opportunity, as Truss did when she posed for her taxpayer-funded photographer in Red Square. As the Observer pointed out on Sunday (13 February), more than 700 photos of Truss have appeared on the government’s official Flickr account since she became foreign secretary five months ago. That’s nearly five a day, and double the number of Rishi Sunak, her likely rival to succeed Boris Johnson, on the official Treasury Flickr account.

Thatcher would also have prepared to the last detail. She would have known that the Rostov and Voronezh regions were part of Russia – and, for that matter, the difference between the Black and Baltic Seas.

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[see also: Why Boris Johnson is beyond saving]

As Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Moscow, wrote in a letter to the Times: “Liz Truss’s performance in Moscow last week completed the process of the UK making itself irrelevant to serious diplomatic efforts to resolve the Ukraine crisis.”

Am I being unfair? I have just re-read “Building the Network of Liberty”, the big set-piece speech in which Truss set out her vision of Britain’s future role in the world last December. Judge for yourselves, but it struck me as totally vacuous, utterly devoid of original ideas, and a cheap pastiche of what she would have imagined that Thatcher might have said.

It was an exercise in jingoism – extolling “Global Britain” as “the greatest country on Earth”, an “economic powerhouse”, and a “science and tech superpower” with “unrivalled influence in the world”. 

It talked of the need for “freedom-loving nations to call time on introspection, protectionism and isolationism” – seemingly oblivious to the fact that Brexit Britain has cut foreign aid, withdrawn from the world’s largest trade and political bloc, and spent the last six years gazing at its proverbial navel. (Once opposed to Brexit, Truss told voters in the 2016 referendum that “if you care about being an outward-facing, internationally focused country… go out and vote [Remain]”).  

It mentioned the words “freedom”, “free” or “liberty” at least 28 times, as if mere rhetorical repetition could achieve it. By helping end the Cold War, Thatcher actually delivered freedom to large parts of the world.

The differences between Thatcher and Truss do not end there.

A conviction politician, Thatcher would never have changed her mind on such a core issue as Brexit – as Truss did out of political expediency. (For that matter, I very much doubt that Thatcher would have supported Brexit, with the immense loss of global influence and stature that it entailed, but that point is at least debatable.)

Nor do I believe that Thatcher would have had any truck with the government of which Truss is a leading member, or with a Prime Minister for whom Truss is a prominent apologist. 

A woman of unimpeachable personal integrity, Thatcher would have deplored Johnson’s lies, betrayals and endlessly louche conduct. She would have been appalled that a British Prime Minister is being investigated by the police. She would hate the way he has debased his office.

A barrister and stickler for law and order, she would have decried Johnson’s cavalier attitude to international treaties, his contempt for his own Covid regulations and his attacks on the judiciary. And, for that matter, Truss’s failure to defend the three high court judges labelled “enemies of the people” by the Daily Mail

A politician of substance, she would have been disgusted by his failure to master briefs, his government by slogan and headline-catching soundbites, and his fundamental lack of seriousness or purpose.

A grocer’s daughter, she would have been horrified at the way his government awards lucrative contracts to cronies, and squanders taxpayers’ money on vanity projects. And, for that matter, how he let Truss spend a reported £500,000 taking a private plane to Australia

Though Thatcher frequently battled with her own cabinet, she never filled it with loyal mediocrities. Though she doubtless found parliament tiresome, she never sought to bypass it or avoid accountability. Admittedly the context was different, but she would never, ever have allowed the Conservative Party to accept donations from Russian oligarchs.

Truss is no Thatcher. The Foreign Secretary lacks her character, integrity, vision, conviction and intelligence. Her attempts to inherit the Iron Lady’s mantle are doomed to fail. They serve merely to make the Foreign Secretary look absurd, and to underscore how far we, as a country, have fallen.

[see also: Is Rishi Sunak determined enough to end the farce of the Johnson premiership?]

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