To be foreign secretary is the most frustrating desirable job in politics. As the representative of a middle-league nation that no longer carries the combined weight of the European Union, power has ebbed away. There is no capacity to spend, cut taxes or to write legacy-creating legislation. And then, as soon as a major crisis comes along and briefly tantalises the foreign secretary with fame on a world stage, in steps the prime minister to conduct the diplomacy and the press conferences. No other senior minister is usurped as frequently as the foreign secretary. Suez and Iraq made Anthony Eden and Tony Blair notorious, not Selwyn Lloyd and Jack Straw.
This is the political paradox for Liz Truss at the moment. Light years ago, last month, before Ukraine, Truss was one of the favoured candidates to replace Boris Johnson should the Prime Minister have fallen over his lockdown party habits. Then the invasion happened and Truss made an ill-advised suggestion on the BBC that volunteers should “absolutely” travel to Ukraine to fight the Russians. Events were passing her by until the gratifying release from capture this week of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Though the truth behind the release is a tangled coming together of the absence of Trump and talks over the Iran nuclear deal, Tulip Siddiq – Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s indefatigable MP – rightly paid tribute to the Foreign Secretary for her compassionate engagement. It is a big moment and she deserved the praise.
The political question that arises is whether this success in any way recuperates her position as a candidate to be prime minister and, in point of fact, it probably doesn’t. Foreign secretary has, historically, not been a good vantage point from which to become the prime minister. Harold Macmillan, John Major and Johnson all served briefly as foreign secretary before taking on the top job but none of them moved directly from one to the other. The only postwar prime ministers to become prime minister from the position of foreign secretary are the inauspicious examples of Anthony Eden and Jim Callaghan.
Truss’s main qualification for consideration is that she flatters her immediate audience. Her own set of political prejudices – libertarian on economics, the scourge of the woke, and a zealous convert to Brexit – is almost perfectly, perhaps even suspiciously, designed to appeal to Conservative Party associations. Truss was a contributor, along with Dominic Raab and Priti Patel, to the 2012 book Britannia Unchained, whose mixture of low taxes, low regulation and unfettered markets might be better titled Britannia Unhinged.
Though her parents were left wing and despite her own youthful indiscretion as a Liberal Democrat activist, republican and protester against the 1994 Criminal Justice Bill on Twyford Down, this is now Truss’s settled position. She describes herself, candidly, as more ideologically motivated than most of her colleagues. She founded the Free Enterprise Group of Conservative MPs and she is an advocate of more rigour in schools, especially more mathematics. It’s an identikit ideology for a Tory of a certain vintage. Her desire to play to the gallery led Truss, as the justice secretary, to fail to support judicial independence when three judges of the high court came under attack from the press for ruling against the government in the article 50 Brexit case.
Within the audience that needs to be persuaded these are all great strengths, but Truss’s accompanying weakness might just be insurmountable. The central point is not about political ideology, it is about character. Some politicians just don’t cut it. That is hardly the rigorous mathematical category of which Truss would approve but it’s a unit of measurement in the humanities. Truss shares with the likes of Ed Miliband and Matt Hancock a trait that is a disqualification for high office. There is no sugar-coated way to say it – she seems a bit silly. All three of them seem like children who have been allowed to stay up late.
Truss’s pièce de résistance as a star of the comic stage came at the 2014 Conservative Party conference when, as environment secretary, she gave one of the great orations of modern times. I will never tire of quoting it: “at the moment, we import two thirds of all of our apples. We import nine tenths of all our pears. We import two thirds of our cheese.” Then, after a pause for effect, she added, as if there were full stops between each word: “that. Is. A. Disgrace! From the apples that dropped on Isaac Newton’s head… this fruit has always been part of Britain.” Those pesky Euro-johnnies. They would have stopped gravity if they could. They probably tried.
Truss has, so far, made two claims to seriousness, the second and more impressive of which is the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe case. Her first attempt, much applauded by her advocates, was her tour of global capitals in pursuit of trade deals when she was the international trade secretary. Yet, all of the 63 deals signed were simple extensions of an existing EU deal. One wonders, not for the first time, what the point was. Truss did plenty of spadework on deals with Australia and New Zealand but there is a lot more to be done before they come into effect. The deal Truss signed with Japan, for all the fanfare that it was given, was itself all but identical to the deal Japan has with the EU. And even that process was interrupted by a pleasingly symmetrical spot of tomfoolery when the talks stalled over the issue of stilton cheese.
Some lines of Philip Larkin’s about advertising are strangely appropriate: “In this way I spent youth/Tracing the trite, untransferable/Truss-advertisement, truth”. In other words, he might have said, it’s not enough to have a good Instagram game. Even in this unserious time you have to be serious.