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16 April 2024updated 17 Apr 2024 12:31pm

Liz Truss is getting what she wants

For the former prime minister, being laughed at is better than being ignored.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Here’s a thought experiment: if you really believed the world as you knew it was in peril, and that it was your purpose in life to avert catastrophe before it was too late, what would you do? How would you go about convincing everyone else – normal, sensible people who aren’t too worried about the end of the world, thank you very much – to listen to you? How would you grab their attention?

If you are Liz Truss, the answer is to write a book. Not just any book: a memoir-cum-manifesto, published a mere 18 months after she was forced from office in disgrace, with the grandiose title Ten Years to Save the West.

Much-hyped despite the embarrassingly low advance fee (Truss is reported to have received just £1,512.88, compared with the £510,000 Boris Johnson has received for his own personal reflections), the Truss guide to being prime minister for 49 days comes with the subtitle, “Lessons from the only conservative in the room”. It was destined to be comprehensively mocked long before any journalists saw the advanced pages. And it has not disappointed.

Tales including Truss’s struggle to book an Ocado delivery, a flea-infested Downing Street, Dominic Raab’s Chevening protein shakes and the prime minister’s one-woman mission to get a hair appointment have been gleefully shared and torn apart since they started appearing. “Why is she doing this?” a friend who doesn’t usually follow politics asked me incredulously after reading of the former PM’s despair over John Lewis furniture. “Does she really have no self-awareness at all?”

It’s a valid question. If one of Truss’s main bugbears is that no one took her seriously during her brief time at the top, it’s hard to see how her case will be helped by the revelation that her response to the death of Queen Elizabeth II on her second day in the job was (to quote Pulp’s “F.E.E.L.I.N.G. C.A.L.L.E.D. L.O.V.E.”) “why me, why now”?

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Truss’s lack of self-awareness is a running joke in Westminster. She has been compared not just to a lettuce (a stunt which, by the way, she finds “puerile” and unfunny), but to an AI, or a sea lion that can’t recognise itself in a mirror. Every time she gets onstage to defend her record and her ideology, she exacerbates the perception that she is not quite tethered to reality – whether it’s telling gun-toting Republicans in America that those on the right “need a bigger bazooka” to counter the “hostile environment” of woke politics, or standing up in a church to launch a new movement by the name of “Popular Conservatism” when she is pretty much the least popular politician in the country today.

Hasn’t anyone told her how utterly ridiculous she looks as she continues to disregard the market chaos caused by her “move fast and break things” approach to economics, blaming the “deep state” and the shadowy “establishment” for her own failings? Doesn’t she realise how damaging her interventions are – to her own (already mostly trashed) reputation and to her party which is still paying the price for her legacy in the polls?

Those questions are usually asked rhetorically. But for once, let’s answer them. Truss has not spent the past year and a half in a sensory deprivation tank or a wi-fi-less bunker. She must be aware of the backlash she gets every time she opens her mouth to opine on threats to the West. And yet she does it anyway. Frequently. And now with funny stories about getting US First Lady Jill Biden mixed up with the wife of the French president.

There’s an old adage in behavioural economics that if someone who is otherwise rational appears to be acting in a way that makes no sense, you’re measuring the wrong thing. The conventional answer is that Truss is far from rational (usually put in less kind terms). But sometimes Truss can be very rational – and, in fact, self-aware – indeed. One of the most revealing lines about her comes not from her own book, but from the biography Out of the Blue by journalists Harry Cole and James Heale, published shortly after her resignation in November 2022. Preparing her leadership bid in summer 2022, Truss bluntly tells her allies: “I think I would be a very good Prime Minister, there are just two problems: I am weird and I don’t have any friends.”

Speaking to people who worked closely with Truss before she entered No 10, it is evident she made a conscious choice to “lean into” her weirdness as a means of raising her profile. Look at the pro-market memes she posted on social media, a widely publicised friendship with a “sextrepreneur” who runs swingers parties, a photo where she poses like a Bond villain with Larry the Downing Street cat on her lap. (She is aware, I was told, of the rumours that swirl around her favourite necklace, but chooses to keep wearing it.) Truss spent years under David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson being mocked, but also being noticed. And then she became prime minister.

So let’s go back to her book, where among all the Alan Partridge-esque anecdotes, Truss writes of her belief that “the Conservative movement across the West has been faltering for almost a generation”. And let’s go back to the Conservative Party, which is in the midst of a vicious civil war about what exactly it is and what it stands for. 

Truss might not be popular, but there is a sizeable faction of her party that has decided the reason it has all gone so wrong is that the deck was stacked against them from the start. A faction that wants to figure out how to change that. A faction that doesn’t necessarily think Truss got things right, but agrees with her premise that forces outside of Westminster curtail what governments are able to do. A faction that is both desperate and open to ideas, especially if they come from “the only conservative in the room”.

Truss, I was assured, really does want to “save the West”. But she believes the first step to that is saving the Conservative Party from itself. She knows the government that succeeded her would prefer to pretend she doesn’t exist and that the mainstream of her party considers her an irrelevance. So she needs to make herself relevant again, to keep popping up with a book full of tell-all revelations about her “close relationship” with Kwasi Kwarteng (only to later deny anything romantic) and bombastic end-of-the-world rhetoric, keep grabbing attention, keep banging the drum for her ideas however deranged it might make her look.

Because if you really believed the world as you knew it was in peril, and that it was your purpose in life to avert catastrophe before it was too late, this would all make total sense. Being laughed at is better than being ignored. And this book is making it very difficult to ignore Liz Truss.

[See also: Priti situations vacant: Tories plot to install Patel as PM]

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