Liz Truss: Tory leadership frontrunner – for now

Meme by Sadie Parker

From “Cameron Cutie” to “Johnson Jingle” – so-called because she is one of the last to sing the outgoing prime minister Boris Johnson’s praises, albeit out of tune with the public – Mary Elizabeth “Liz” Truss has had a meteoric rise over the past twelve years of Conservative government. It is all the more astonishing that Truss is now the favourite to succeed Boris Johnson as party leader, and thus as prime minister, because she is perceived by colleagues and critics alike to be a political lightweight. First elected as an MP for South-West Norfolk in 2010, only two years later she was already a parliamentary under-secretary of state (junior minister) for Education, promoted to cabinet as Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs by then prime minister David Cameron only two years after that, and she has not been out of government since.

Liz Truss before she was famous

It was not at all obvious that Truss would grow up to become a leading Conservative politician. Born into a Labour-voting family, by the time she was at university studying politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) at Merton College, Oxford, she was a committed member of the Liberal Democrats. At that time, she had not begun to dye her hair blonde and so she is a little difficult to recognise in the various embarrassing video clips that exist of her pushing the cause of the abolition of the monarchy. She’s also far more animated in those bygone days before botox, voice coaches and focus-grouped soundbites.

“We do not believe people should be born to rule, or that they should put up and shut up about decisions which affect their everyday lives,” she told the 1994 Liberal Democrat Federal Conference in a speech that is said to have embarrassed then leader Paddy Ashdown. Three years later she had joined the Conservatives and Unionist Party. Quite how she made that leap is unknown. It certainly had nothing to do with the rather ridiculous claim she made in the ITV Debate that she became a Conservative after ‘being let down’ when she was at Roundhay School in Leeds, especially considering that she was at school during the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and did sufficiently well to win an Oxbridge place.

After university, Truss worked as a chartered management accountant for oil major Shell (1996-2000), then in various management roles for Cable and Wireless (2000-2005) and finally at think tank Reform where she was appointed as deputy director in 2008. Unlike many of her colleagues, this means she entered parliament in 2010 with some relevant business experience.

Truss got noticed after she collaborated with four other new MPs from the 2010 intake – Dominic Raab, Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel and Chris Skidmore – to write the treatise “Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity”, which was published in September 2012. Perhaps the most memorable quotes is this:

“The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”

It is not known what scientific analysis the authors conducted, if any, to reach this conclusion. As someone who has been a trustee of a charity involved in the education sector in India and Nepal for five years, I can tell you Indian kids don’t play football, but plenty dream of being cricketers or Bollywood movie stars. Also, is it not ironic to see the famous five lampooning celebrity culture, given Truss has run the two departments of state Johnson has over-promoted her to like an Instagram account, with photographers paid (with taxpayers’ money) to be on hand to snap “the big moments”?

There’s more:

“We should stop indulging in irrelevant debates about sharing the pie between manufacturing and services, the north and the south, women and men.”

She wasn’t an early fan of levelling up then…

Truss in Cabinet

In all, Truss has held cabinet-level positions in five departments of state: the already mentioned Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA), Justice and the Lord High Chancellorship, Treasury Secretary, International Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is said that after the recent meltdown of his government, prompting his resignation, Johnson had wanted to appoint Truss as Chancellor in his caretaker government. However, Nadhim Zahawi had insisted on being given the role as the price for his loyalty – then promptly told the PM to resign the morning after his appointment!

As EFRA Secretary Truss did some good. Unlike her climate-sceptic predecessor, Owen “the badgers are moving the goalposts” Paterson, she declared that climate change is real, laid the groundwork for the re-introduction of beavers and announced a 10-year pollinator strategy to halt the worrying decline in the number of bees. However, she later undid some of that good work by lifting the EU’s ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, which damage a bee’s ability to navigate home, for 4 months so that rape seed farmers could use it against the cabbage stem flea beetle. While at EFRA, it also became clear that the early promise Truss had shown as a public speaker had dissipated and morphed into something utterly cringe-worthy.

Of course, Truss voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum, although with hindsight she probably did so without conviction, but rather because that’s the way she thought the political wind was blowing and felt it was better for her career to show loyalty to David Cameron. A video from the campaign explaining why we should stay in the Single Market has recently resurfaced. It turned out to be highly prescient, even though to burnish her new Brexiter credentials, she has disavowed it and said she was “wrong” to vote Remain – a rather troubling formulation.

It was as Justice Secretary and Lord High Chancellor in Theresa May’s first cabinet that Truss, with zero legal experience, was an unmitigated disaster. The Daily Mail attacked the judiciary, because it did not like the ruling against the government in the R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, publishing photos of the three judges under the headline “Enemies of the People”. The worst the reporters could accuse the judges of was that one of them was into fencing, but the damage was done with the headline alone. As Lord High Chancellor, it was Truss’ responsibility to defend the judiciary against such unwarranted attacks. She did nothing, which was taken by many as signifying agreement.

This was a vile, fascist act by the Daily Mail, and Truss remained silent on it, foreshadowing the final leg of her political journey to the murky shadows of the far-right wing of the Tory Party. It was an epic fail of courage, duty and statesmanship on her part and marked her out as having been over-promoted. A bizarre comment about dogs deterring drones at the dispatch box in the House of Commons left colleagues wondering if she was also barking mad (watch her then junior minister Sam Gyimah trying to keep a straight face):

While Truss may not be very good at doing the jobs she gets, she’s very good at getting them. As Boris Johnson’s very first cabinet-level backer after his coup against Theresa May, Truss was guaranteed a plum job in his future cabinet. Throughout Johnson’s campaign, she flattered him by calling him a “freedom-fighter” in what has to be one of the most toe-curling metropolitan elite pronouncements of all time:

Johnson rewarded Truss’s sycophancy by first appointing her to North Somerset MP Liam “airmiles” Fox’s former role of Secretary for International Trade. Incidentally, this is where one of the bogus claims she is making in her leadership campaign hails from. “They said I couldn’t do it,” she proclaims, referring to the 40 roll-over EU trade deals Liam Fox had boasted would be ready to go at midnight on March 27th, 2019, but weren’t. No, Liz, love. People didn’t say those deals couldn’t be signed – of course they could. The doubt, which proved correct, was whether all 40 could be rolled-over and signed in two years. As it happens, they couldn’t. It took Truss a further two years to complete Fox’s work and then take all the credit for it.

What is unforgiveable is the hash she made of the Japan free trade agreement (FTA), for which she was rightly taken to task in the House of Commons (see above) by then shadow secretary of state for international trade Emily Thornberry, and the Australia FTA, which shafts our farmers to the tune of £94 million pounds, yields next to nothing for our GDP (0.02 per-cent of GDP spread over 15 years) and trashes our food, farming, animal welfare, conservation and environmental standards. Truss didn’t care. Despite her embarrassing posturing, such as boasting about her intention to put the Australian negotiator in a very uncomfortable chair, she capitulated to Australia’s every demand. For her the victory was signing a deal, any old deal, not in getting a good deal for Britain.

Tories always fail upwards. Following the resignation of Amber Rudd in 2019, Truss’ role was expanded to include the Women and Equalities portfolio, which has led to its almost total neglect. She made a speech on equalities in 2020 in which she said that the UK focused too much on “fashionable” race, sexuality and gender issues at the expense of poverty and geographical disparity, and scrapped unconscious bias training for the civil service.

After Boris Johnson bowed to pressure to demote Foreign Secretary Dominic “sun-lounger” Raab subsequent to the Afghan evacuation disaster (but kept him on as Deputy PM), Truss found herself mistress of the grandiose Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. As Foreign Secretary she scored a major victory in finalising the release of British-Iranian citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from jail in Iran. That jail term had been extended when a previous lazy Foreign Secretary, one Boris Johnson, had not bothered to read his brief and made ill thought-out comments that were used in evidence against her.

Truss has had a wonderful time squandering taxpayers’ money using private jets instead of scheduled airlines for her flights and having her photo taken with lots of flags. One such trip to Australia cost the British taxpayer an eye-watering half a million pounds. She justified using a private jet on the pretext that she may have had to return to the UK at very short notice. Boris Johnson’s premiership was on the skids and she wanted to get back quickly to jockey for position if he resigned while she was in Australia. Her blonde ambition and lofty sense of entitlement is reminiscent of the man she hopes to succeed, and exactly the sort of attitude the British public hopes to see reined in.

Aside from extravagance, there have been embarrassing blunders that we have come to expect from Truss, who often appears to be unable to string a sentence together when speaking in public. She likes to threaten Putin and say that she’ll stand up to him, but the Russians are not afraid of her. They’ve met her. Her stiltedness was mocked by Russia’s foreign secretary Sergei Lavrov who described holding talks with her as like dealing with a deaf-mute and schooled her when she muddled the Baltic Sea with the Black Sea. Unkind, but true.

When Lord Frost resigned in late 2021, Truss found her responsibilities expanded yet again. She is currently Foreign Secretary (which absorbed the Department for International Development under Raab), Women and Equalities minister AND Brexit chief negotiator. To burnish her Brexiter credentials and get the European Research Group (ERG) on the far right of the Tory Party to back her as the preferred successor to Boris Johnson, she has championed a dangerous piece of legislation. Her Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) Bill proposes not only to empower the UK government to break international law, but also represents a power grab for the Executive at the expense of our elected parliament. Truss is no friend to democracy or the rule of law.

Liz Truss’ leadership campaign

Truss’s leadership campaign got off to a surreal start when she got lost en route to it, and could not find her way out of the room at the end of the launch event.

Perhaps, then, it is unsurprising that Truss appears to have lost her way politically and has lurched even further right than Boris Johnson, ostensibly to appeal to the ERG. Her proposed future cabinet would still contain the worst of Johnson’s deadweight team, including culture warrior Nadine Dorries and member for the eighteenth-century Jacob Rees-Mogg. It is rumoured Truss wants Kwasi Kwarteng as Chancellor, close friend Therese Coffey in the Home Office, Simon Clarke at Business, James Cleverly to remain at Education and Suella Braverman to move up to Work and Pensions. There are not enough scream emojis across the entirety of the world’s social media platforms to express what a horrifying prospect that is.

Her performance at debates has been lamentably wooden, with ersatz Margaret Thatcher impersonations, half-baked policies and easily-disproved lies. For example, when she claimed to have opposed the increase in national insurance in cabinet, other MPs who witnessed events were quick to point out that this was simply untrue.

Despite the appearance of ditziness, the well-documented gaffes and Truss’s evident lack of articulacy, she should not be under-estimated. Her policy agenda is truly alarming. She has teamed up with controversial economist, Patrick Minford, ranked 41st out of the UK’s 41 leading British economists. He was behind the Poll Tax debacle in the Thatcher era. He was also responsible for the fake business case for Brexit that promised £165 billion in Brexit benefits, but was found to contain rookie spread sheet errors, dubious assumptions and a reliance on slashing workers’ rights and environmental protections. He glibly predicted that Brexit would destroy British manufacturing industries, but that was all right, because “these things happen”. Now he’s backing Truss’s proposed tax cuts, which he says will push interest rates up to 7 per-cent, and any companies that go bust as a result probably should not be in business anyway.

There is far worse, with the race to the bottom of cruel immigration policies, escalating rhetoric about leaving the European Court of Human Rights (one of Churchill’s triumphs), and her avowed admiration of “freeports” or “investment zones”, which are really charter cities in disguise. Charter cities hark back to the East India Company of yore, in other words, privatised government. Everything in a city designated as a charter city, from healthcare, education, police, legislature to the courts, will be controlled by a private corporation – not people or the state. It is privatisation gone psychotic and will lead to even worse inequality than we are experiencing now.

Truss must be stopped, but the bad news is, only the marginally less unappealing Rishi Sunak can do it. What a choice. What a time to be alive.