The unlikely rise of Liz Truss has been defined by images, not words. Whether Britain’s foreign secretary is fending off the Russian bear from atop a tank in Estonia, striding the deck of an aircraft carrier or, flanked by globe and Union Jack, delivering a regal online Christmas greeting from the cavernous office that once ran an empire, the ascent of the politician the tabloids call “Queen Liz” has been faithfully captured on social media.
One image above all seemed to sum up her improbable transformation from ministerial also-ran to potential future British prime minister. In a photo taken last month, the foreign secretary is standing serenely on the icy steps of Chevening House, her 15-bedroom English Palladian official country residence, preparing to greet a visiting plenipotentiary from Brussels. As the European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic approached, he stumbled and fell at Truss’s feet. In the picture, Truss reaches out to help him, a broad smile settling on her face.
Boris Johnson appointed Truss, 46, to one of the UK’s four great offices of state only last September, but she has blown through the fusty Foreign Office corridors in King Charles Street, embarked on a whirlwind global tour and startled foreign diplomats with her direct style. Talk of her replacing the chaotic Johnson as prime minister no longer seems fanciful. Throughout 2021, she was the most popular cabinet member among Tory activists, who will ultimately choose Johnson’s successor.
Truss, who once acted the role of Margaret Thatcher in a school play, makes little secret of her desire to emulate her political heroine and become Britain’s third female prime minister. Her flag-waving enthusiasm for “freedom”, free trade, low taxes and a small state all echo Thatcher and resonate with the party base. The photo of her in a tank seemed to intentionally mimic a famous Iron Lady image from the cold war. Put simply: Truss is on a roll. “She wants to go all the way,” says one colleague.
And yet, she has a problem. Truss’s uncompromising economic positions and distaste for political correctness make her a divisive figure. For all those who see her as a refreshing, ideologically focused and relentlessly energetic minister, there are just as many – perhaps more – who see the foreign secretary as some kind of political joke.
Wishing everyone in the UK and around the world a merry Christmas 🇬🇧 🌎 pic.twitter.com/xPmsm2t7JH
— Liz Truss (@trussliz) December 15, 2021
A “pound shop Thatcher” in the words of one critical Tory MP. An Opinium poll in December suggested the Tories would do worse under her leadership than under the floundering Johnson. If an election were held under Johnson’s leadership, the survey found that Labour would win by a 12-point margin; under Truss’s leadership, Labour would win by 16 points. The same poll found that Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer and Truss’s potential leadership rival, would cut the margin to just three. “She’s a very odd person,” says one Tory MP, who knows her well. “Not good or bad – just very weird.”
Truss’s keynote speech on foreign policy last year, in which she talked of rebuilding the “muscle” of “Global Britain”, was described by one former UK ambassador as “the biggest load of drivel I’ve ever heard”. Her early ministerial career was a flop and, until recently, her national profile has been relatively low. For some, Truss will forever be associated with a bizarre 2014 Tory conference speech in which her tone fluctuated wildly as she discussed the vagaries of imports and exports.
“We import two-thirds of our cheese – that is a disgrace,” she thundered angrily at bewildered delegates. The then agriculture minister’s mood suddenly lifted as she contemplated plans to travel to Beijing where she would be “opening up new pork markets”. At the prospect of this trade mission, the ecstatic smile on her face froze as she waited what seemed like an eternity for some applause. The clip became an internet sensation. “Maybe the speech was a bit over-exuberant,” she jokes to friends today.
But eight years is a lifetime in politics. David Gauke, a former Tory minister who served in the cabinet alongside Truss, argues that things have changed. “I think there’s a realistic chance she could become Conservative leader.” And one Tory critic of Truss admits that, if Johnson is forced out soon, the situation could get very interesting: “She’s so un-self-aware that she thinks she can do it.”
Elizabeth Mary Truss was born into a middle-class family in Oxford and raised to despise Margaret Thatcher. Truss’s father, a professor of mathematics, and her mother, a nurse and teacher, were firmly on the left, supporting unilateral nuclear disarmament during the cold war. But the young Truss, who spent her youth near Glasgow and in a well-heeled suburb of Leeds, came to be fascinated by the way the Iron Lady stood up to the Soviet Union. Her parents’ antipathy to Thatcher seemed to spur her on.
By the time she arrived at Oxford university to read philosophy, politics and economics – she previously attended a Leeds state school – Truss was already a radical but not yet a Tory. Instead she became president of the Oxford Liberal Democrats, making an impassioned speech at the Lib Dem conference in 1994 that backed a motion calling for the abolition of the monarchy. “We Liberal Democrats believe in opportunity for all. We do not believe people are born to rule,” she declared. David Laws, a former Lib Dem cabinet minister, recalls the party leader of the time, Paddy Ashdown, muttering: “If this goes through, the party’s finished.
After graduating, Truss joined the Conservative party. She tells friends that a trip to eastern Europe in the 1990s was a defining moment. One colleague says: “Those countries had just become free again and the sense of newly found freedom was quite overwhelming for Liz. It’s one of the reasons why she feels it so viscerally, the sense that people are now trying to roll that freedom back. She was convinced that Thatcher, by being strong, had taken the right approach.”
Truss’s appeal to Conservative activists today is not hard to fathom. In an age when Johnson has tried to expand the Tory brand to working-class areas of the country with a big-state approach – taxes in Britain are now at their highest level since 1950 – Truss, in the words of one Tory MP, “tries to look like Margaret Thatcher and says ‘freedom’ a lot”.
While the foreign secretary insists such analogies are “lazy”, one minister close to her says: “She loves the comparison with Margaret Thatcher.” One female former cabinet member says: “Every woman MP is asked if they are like Margaret Thatcher but it does feel as though she’s really channelling that with deliberate and successful evocation. It’s something about her directness and the way she looks at you firmly.”
Laws recalls how, during the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government of 2010-15, he held a ministerial meeting in 10 Downing Street to discuss Truss’s plan to deregulate childcare with the aim of driving down costs. “She has a habit of carrying on talking when people are trying to talk to her, as if she’s a bit deaf,” he recalls. “She was doing this and I noticed behind her on the wall was a portrait of Mrs Thatcher. I told Liz that she reminded me of someone else who didn’t listen. Liz turned around and was delighted.”
Truss’s credo, penned with four fellow Thatcherites including Priti Patel and Dominic Raab, is the 2012 paean to free markets “Britannia Unchained”, which included the memorable observation: “The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor.” The book says the UK should “stop indulging in irrelevant debates about sharing the pie between manufacturing and services, the north and the south, women and men”.
Whether Truss could convince voters in newly Conservative seats in working-class areas of northern England to vote for such an astringent version of 21st-century Toryism is one of the questions that will hang over any bid for the leadership of her party. “Are people going to want an ersatz Thatcher at the next election?” asks one former Tory cabinet minister. The polling on her own popularity, at least, suggests that she has some work to do.
In Truss’s ornate office, pride of place is taken by a ceremonial dagger given to her by a former army officer. Some Conservative MPs think the weapon is somewhat appropriate, given what they regard to be the foreign secretary’s apparent hunger to oust Johnson. “She’s been going for broke on the leadership, even though there’s no vacancy,” says one well-connected Tory MP. “It’s so naked, it’s embarrassing. It’s a running joke in the cabinet.”
Conservative MPs watch Truss’s global travels (carefully curated on Instagram), her dabbling with Thatcher iconography and her drinks with Tory MPs as evidence that she is “on manoeuvres”. Stories have appeared of “fizz with Liz” soirées in which the foreign secretary listens to Tory MPs’ concerns while taking every opportunity to talk of her love of freedom.
Truss, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is exasperated by such accounts. “If Rishi Sunak meets Tory MPs, it’s a ‘round table on the economy’ but with Liz it’s ‘fizz with Liz’,” says one ally of the foreign secretary. She argues that meeting colleagues, particularly to discuss issues such as the crisis in Ukraine, is part of her job.
Some believe that Truss is a little too obvious, but one Tory official says: “Jumping the gun is naturally her thing. She’s always full of energy and moving on to the next thing. She takes life by the balls – and good for her.”
While Truss was accused of being overly eager to see the back of Johnson at the tail end of 2021, in recent weeks she has taken what many regard to be a wiser political strategy: staying publicly loyal to her boss, conspicuously sitting at his side during his numerous interrogations and occasional humiliations by MPs in the House of Commons. “You either lean in or lean out,” says one fellow minister. “In the end, the Conservative party still values loyalty.”
One member of Johnson’s team confirms that the prime minister has “no problem with Liz – she’s just doing her thing”. By contrast they say there is growing suspicion of Sunak, the frontrunner to succeed Johnson, who has publicly criticised the prime minister’s conduct. Truss seems to have heeded the cliché of recent Tory leadership contests: “He who wields the knife never wears the crown.”
The fact that Truss is even a contender in a future Tory leadership contest is remarkable, given that little more than two years ago she seemed to be getting further from power, not closer. Following a career in business as a commercial manager at Shell and as economic director at Cable & Wireless, her political career began in earnest in 2010 when she was elected Tory MP for rural South West Norfolk. There were calls from some local party worthies – dubbed the “Turnip Taliban” – for Truss to be dumped when news emerged of her extramarital relationship years earlier with Mark Field, a Tory MP assigned to mentor her. But the party leader David Cameron stood by her.
So did her husband, Hugh O’Leary, an accountant. The couple have two teenage daughters, Liberty and Frances. Truss, according to colleagues, does not have a huge social network but says, “my kids are my friends”. She jokes to friends that she has “a kind of boring life” outside politics, spending her time walking and cooking with her family or reading. One ministerial colleague says, “They’re a very tight family. Hugh is just lovely.”
Liz Truss’s ministerial career
Chief secretary to the Treasury
International trade secretary
Minister for women and equalities
At first her Westminster career flourished under the wing of George Osborne, the former Tory chancellor. As a “friend of George”, ministerial jobs beckoned, initially as a junior children’s minister then entering the cabinet in 2014 as environment, food and rural affairs minister, the role in which she gave her eulogy to Chinese pork markets. She went on to become justice secretary at a time of high tensions between government and judiciary over the implementation of Brexit. After judges on the High Court were accused by the Daily Mail of being “enemies of the people” for insisting that parliament should vote on measures to implement Brexit, the judiciary turned to Truss for support, but she declined.
Truss has not apologised, arguing that her support for free speech and a free press trumped any support she might have felt like giving to Britain’s independent judiciary. In her view the judges could look after themselves, she tells colleagues. But in 2017, under Theresa May’s premiership, her next move was downwards: she ended up as number two in the Treasury, with a widely held expectation that her ministerial career was coming to an end.
Her comeback started in July 2019 when Johnson became prime minister, dispatching Truss (who supported him for the leadership) to what was traditionally seen as the obscure Whitehall posting of international trade secretary. Not under Truss. Over the next two years, she used the job to transform her reputation in the party and to emerge as a Brexiteer hero – obscuring the awkward fact that she supported Remain in the 2016 referendum.
Truss tells friends she was always a Eurosceptic, in the sense that she opposed big government, and that it was a tough decision to back Remain and to stick with Cameron in the referendum campaign. One colleague says: “There was a loyalty element to it but she was genuinely wavering.” Another says Truss was under “enormous pressure” from Cameron and Osborne. In any event, her championing of post-Brexit free trade has wiped the slate clean with Britain’s Leavers.
She quickly realised that renegotiating Britain’s trade deals after Brexit – most of which were “cut and paste” rollovers from deals struck on the UK’s behalf by the EU – afforded her a remarkable platform upon which to promote her love of free trade. Every deal, no matter how modest, offered a chance for Truss to be pictured in a foreign location, flying the flag for “Global Britain”. Insiders at the Department for International Trade joke that they now work at the Department for Instagramming Truss. One says: “Ironically she did all the Instagram herself. She is obsessed with comms.”
While some ministers cite Truss’s enthusiasm for Instagram and social media as evidence of her supposed shallowness, Sunak has a similar operation. “Liz just got on to it earlier,” says one Tory official. Truss has doubled down on her advantage by hiring Robert Midgley, formerly Johnson’s chief videographer, as her digital communications adviser. “Now everybody wants their own digital adviser,” says the official.
Truss’s promotion to foreign secretary in September 2021 was seen by critics as the moment when she would be found out. Her Chatham House keynote, where she spoke of a “network of liberty” and the need to end “the age of introspection” — including being “ashamed” of the past — might have appealed to the Tory base but was panned in the diplomatic community for its supposed lack of substance.
Some in the Foreign Office take a more nuanced view. The arrival of the energetic and open Truss marked a departure from the closed style of the previous incumbent Dominic Raab, who was seen by some as a control freak. “She’s quite engaging, she’s got a sense of humour, she’s quick,” says one veteran British diplomat. “Personal style does matter in foreign policy, particularly in first meetings.” British officials say she has gone down especially well in the US.
Some colleagues call Truss’s habit of whispering conspiratorially into the ear of an interlocutor “close talking”. One veteran of the diplomatic circuit, observing Truss in action for the first time, simply said: “What on earth…?” But Truss has thrown herself with typical vim into the job. From warning of a possible Kremlin-backed coup in Kyiv, to meeting her Russian counterpart in Moscow this week, she has sought to put herself at the forefront of western efforts to forestall the risk of war in eastern Europe and project Britain’s global standing post-Brexit.
Diplomats note that her direct style has created, at least initially, a good impression with some of Britain’s EU partners, who see Truss as the foreign secretary who might bring relations between the two sides out of the deep freeze after Brexit. Crucially, Johnson has given Truss the task of settling the corrosive dispute over post-Brexit trading relations in Northern Ireland, fully restoring European relations to the Foreign Office.
After his initial stumble on the Chevening steps, Sefcovic spent an hour with Truss walking through the pleasure gardens in the Kentish North Downs and after dinner she led the two negotiating teams in a game of snooker over coffee and drinks. “There’s a sense she wants to move forward,” says one EU diplomat. “What we’ve seen so far is charm, pragmatism, energy, drive. She knows the details more than I expected.”
Allies say Truss has “quite a Manichean, dualist view of the world and believes democracies need to assert themselves against authoritarians like China and Russia”. In practice that means she wants to stop the squabbling and reset relations with the EU: “She believes like-minded countries must unite.”
The way Truss has approached her task offers some clues to those wondering what kind of prime minister she would be. A former researcher says: “I was always struck by how sharp she is, how far removed she is from the perception in the public of her being a bit ditsy. Her work ethic is through the roof.”
Like Thatcher, Truss has never said that being a woman in politics makes things harder. Colleagues say that whenever the issue comes up, she says: “I’ve never been a man, so it’s hard for me to tell.” Mark Littlewood, a member of the Oxford university Lib Dem club with Truss, says: “I’ve never heard her complain once about being treated unfairly or dismissively because she is a woman. I think that if she ever felt that, it would have redoubled her determination.”
In 2020, in her other role as equalities minister, Truss claimed the UK had focused too heavily on “fashionable” issues of race, sexuality and gender at the expense of poverty and geographical disparities. Her impatience with what she likes to describe as “this woke bandwagon” is perhaps just as popular with Tory members as her adherence to free markets and tax-cutting.
Articles have appeared recently suggesting that Truss enjoys her new status too much, using an expensive government jet to fly to Australia, for example, or pointing to her expensive taste in restaurants for official dinners. Her supporters argue that the minister, whose karaoke favourites include Whitney Houston and Pulp’s “Common People” and whose culinary forte is a cinnamon bun, is actually “down to earth”. One minister likens her to a “nineties ladette”, always looking to let her hair down at the end of the day.
As usual, though, opinions are divided. “I’m not sure she’s that relatable or likeable,” says one minister. “She is one of these people who always looks like she’s calculating.” And a former Downing Street official adds: “I don’t think people realise quite how strange she is until they meet her in real life.” Yet when Johnson leaves – or is ousted – few doubt that Truss will stand. It will then be up to Conservative MPs to whittle down the list of leadership candidates to a shortlist of just two, with party activists having the final say. The question, at that point, would be whether MPs would put Truss on a final shortlist to be presented to her activist fanbase, especially if the polls continued to suggest she had limited popular appeal.
Some doubt she will get that far. “The Conservative party has changed,” says one MP. “It has moved to the left economically and the right socially. What Liz is pushing is mad. If she followed it through and we had lower taxes and reduced public services, we will be hammered.”
Others believe it would be a mistake to dismiss Truss too quickly. The former minister Gauke argues that Truss has shown “flexibility” over Brexit and could soften her Thatcherite message to get elected. He says the Truss of 2022 is a serious proposition. “It’s true that in her early days there was a sense she didn’t have the necessary gravitas. But she’s very determined, she works hard.” He adds: “She desperately wants to be prime minister, but she wants to be a prime minister who does things.”
George Parker is the FT’s political editor. Laura Hughes is FT political and diplomatic correspondent. Additional reporting by Andy Bounds in Brussels
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