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23 February 2024updated 01 Mar 2024 5:07pm

Liz Truss is lost in her own contradictions

The former prime minister’s embrace of the Trumpian right is at odds with her traditional economic liberalism.

By Rachel Cunliffe

What is Liz Truss’s gameplan? Having spent a year in the political wilderness, the UK’s shortest-serving prime minister is now ubiquitous. 

Following her crowd-drawing appearance at the Conservative Party conference last October and the rammed launch of her new “Popular Conservatism” movement in Westminster earlier this month, Truss has now taken her message stateside. The Trump-aligned Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland was the latest venue for Truss to try out the persona she has adopted since her enforced departure from Downing Street: the martyr of the Conservative cause.

The Truss narrative does not seek to deny the political and economic disasters that characterised her seven weeks in office. Rather, it cites them as proof that bigger forces are afoot. If Truss failed, it was because she was doomed to fail – because of shadowy external forces that make it impossible for a true Conservative to succeed.

“Conservatives really need to be thinking about how we change the system itself and how we create the political weather,” she declared at the PopCons launch, arguing that people like her had been “swimming against the tide”.

Her theme at the CPAC conference was the same: “We have got to challenge the institutions themselves. We’ve got to challenge the system itself.” But the tone was bolder – and decidedly more aggressive. In a Republican-red dress, with her blonde hair styled in a distinctive Fox News bob, Truss dialled the rhetoric up to eleven. “Conservatives are now operating in what is a hostile environment and we essentially need a bigger bazooka in order to be able to deliver,” she warned, no doubt conscious that her American audience was likely to be more familiar with firearms than the Tory party members she’d evangelised to two weeks before.

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At times, however, her message risked getting lost in translation. While Truss was rewarded with laughter and a smattering of applause when she took aim at President Biden, asking her audience to imagine how “offensive” it was to be “attacked on your economic policies by the inventor of Bidenomics”, there was a distinct sense of bafflement at her lambasting of the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility. (US Republicans, it seems, aren’t particularly well acquainted with George Osborne’s contribution to British economic policy.) And the day before her big speech, at a panel event including Nigel Farage, Truss’s attempt to blame her downfall on “quangos” was met with puzzled looks. Caught off-guard when asked to clarify what exactly quangos were, she deployed the language of internet conspiracy theories such as QAnon: “the administrative state, the deep state”.

This culture clash gets to the heart of the Truss conundrum. Does she want to stay in frontline British politics (a “free-market fairy godmother” as one of her former advisers put it to me), shaping the Tory party in the wake of an anticipated election defeat? Or does she want to go global and reinvent herself as a British figurehead for the Trumpian movement on display at CPAC?

Her political career is an uneasy fit for the latter. The Truss project has long been defined by economic liberalism: free markets and free trade. As prime minister, Truss fell out with her short-lived home secretary, Suella Braverman, over her plans to liberalise immigration rules and grant more visas to the UK. During her leadership campaign, she heralded her record of signing trade deals across the world, allowing cheaper imports to flood the British market. Such liberalism is the antithesis of the protectionism championed by Trump and his Republican allies: this year’s CPAC slogan is “Where globalism goes to die”.

Truss’s strategy appears to involve papering over this major ideological divide by adopting the arguments and communication style of the post-Trump movement: a hostile environment, weaponised institutions, a deep state full of shadowy figures undermining elected politicians, attacks on democracy itself. While the mainstream Republican position is now that the 2020 election was rigged and the Biden presidency is illegitimate, Truss argued in Maryland that “the left did not accept that they’d lost at the ballot box”.

All this – along with Truss’s repeated insistence that “we need a Republican in the White House” – might play well in the glitzy halls of CPAC, where other speakers included former Trump aide Steve Bannon and Argentina’s populist president Javier Milei, and attendees played a virtual pinball game themed around the 6 January insurrection. But it’s hard to see how it translates to the world of British politics, where Truss’s job title is MP for South West Norfolk. 

Seven in ten UK voters have an unfavourable view of Trump – even more than have an unfavourable view of Truss. The deep state narrative feels alien to British political discourse. In an election year (where Truss will be fighting for her own seat), grandiose statements such as “If we don’t take the left on, the West is doomed” and a book on the same theme – Ten Years To Save The West – seem dramatically out of touch with more prosaic voter priorities in the UK such as the cost-of-living crisis and how hard it is to see a GP.

That’s not to say there isn’t appetite in right-wing British circles for the kind of low-tax, low-regulation mission Truss is pushing. She could still play a role in the Tory party’s post-defeat existential crisis and in choosing its next leader. But the more she goes down the deep state rabbit hole, ranting about “sabotage” and a civil service staffed with “trans activists” and “environmental activists”, the more detached she seems from British politics and indeed from the mainstream of her own party. 

If Truss wants to regain any kind of relevance, she is going to have to choose: CPAC star or Tory influencer? Right now, she isn’t either.


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