Liz Truss has been appointed Foreign Secretary, further cementing herself as a power player in Conservative politics for the foreseeable future. Truss, who established herself as a darling of the right due to a combative and energetic stint as chief secretary to the Treasury under Theresa May, was the first sitting cabinet minister to endorse Boris Johnson in 2019. She has further entrenched her reputation among Conservatives at the Department of International Trade.
Those within Downing Street have been impressed by Truss’s ability to get things done, and, amid mounting frustration at Dominic Raab’s performance as Foreign Secretary, she was, in their eyes, the stand-out candidate to replace him.
Long before the crisis in Afghanistan, figures within No 10 were feeling the effects of what several describe as the “dysfunctional culture” that Raab presided over in the Foreign Office, in which officials felt unable to approach Raab. When events in Afghanistan began to unfold, Downing Street figures complained that this wasn’t the first time that this culture had caused serious disruption to the government’s response to a crisis. One Whitehall source notes acerbically that officials are too scared to approach Raab during the “gym time” marked out in his calendar, let alone on holiday.
While this frustration with Raab grew, so too did the briefings in Truss’s favour, with Downing Street sources saying for weeks that they have been impressed by the trade deals the International Trade Secretary has made. One recently noted that while Truss may have a quirky public persona, within government she is one of its most determined and forceful “deliverers”.
Truss’ rise will come as a surprise to those more familiar with her colourful public image than her reputation within government, or to those with better memories of the early half of her ministerial career. Her tenure as environment secretary is best remembered for a notorious speech about agricultural exports and “pork markets” that went viral on social media and was the subject of ridicule. As justice secretary, meanwhile, she was condemned by the legal profession after refusing to criticise the Mail for a headline which described members of the judiciary as ‘enemies of the people’. Such was the weakness of Truss’ political position by then that even an under-powered and humiliated Theresa May felt able to demote Truss after the embarrassment of the inconclusive 2017 general election, which May had hoped to win with an increased majority.
But following her demotion to the role of chief secretary to the Treasury, Truss used the post to reinvent herself as the May government’s most outspoken advocate of fiscal rigour and free markets, deploying close-to-the-bone humour and her Twitter feed to change the mood music around her. She became the party’s “happy warrior” during the Brexit days, where morale in the Conservative party was at a low. Her reinvention as a straight-talking defender of free markets and teller of uncomfortable truths made her a much-sought-after endorsement and she became the first sitting Cabinet minister to endorse Boris Johnson in the 2019 election.
As Johnson’s Secretary of State for International Trade, the conclusion of a number of trade deals under her watch meant she added a reputation for getting things done to her already strong standing on the party’s right, while she also used her Women and Equalities brief as a way to roam outside her brief and further win influence and allies in the party. Some Conservative MPs privately question whether Truss’ recent posturing on trans rights – scrapping plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act, making it easier to reform your legal gender – is her sincere position or one made for political expediency. But it is one of several things that have strengthened Truss’ standing both among members of the parliamentary party and among the Conservative grassroots. As one backbencher puts: “what she has done, very cleverly, is use the Chief Sec job to say to the right of the party ‘I’m one of you on economics’, and now she is using the equalities brief to say ‘and I’m also one of you on this stuff too’.”
Truss herself may have mixed feelings about her promotion to Foreign Secretary. She is widely known at Westminster to have long coveted the role of chancellor, and losing an economic brief moves her further away from it. But as well as moving to a great office of state she retains the Women and Equalities brief, which gives her licence to continue to speak on issues of domestic policy and further build a power base in the Conservative party. Her road to 11 Downing Street may have lengthened, but her route to No 10 looks better than ever.