On the face of it, only a fool would invest much hope in Britain’s new Prime Minister. The 47 year-old mother of two has been handed a poisoned chalice by her predecessor. Britain is experiencing its worst inflation in 40 years, the economy is in recession, national debt is 100% of GDP for the first time in six decades, the average household energy bill is predicted to climb to £6,600 next April and by the end of the year we may be at war with Russia.
She also has the unenviable task of dismantling the Northern Irish protocol while not causing irreparable harm to Britain’s relationship with the EU.
Little in Liz Truss’s political career suggests she has the statecraft to navigate this minefield. She has held six different ministerial offices, including, most recently, Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, and hasn’t particularly distinguished herself in any of them (with the possible exception of Trade Secretary, her most successful office to date). She invites people to compare her to Margaret Thatcher by mimicking her appearance and recreating some of her famous photo opportunities, but there isn’t much evidence she’s a conviction politician.
At Oxford University she was a member of the Liberal Democrats and alarmed the then leader, Paddy Ashdown, by wanting to abolish the monarchy. In the 2016 EU Referendum, she campaigned for Remain and only became a convert to Brexit when her side lost. During the Conservative leadership contest, she vacillated over whether she would provide state aid to poorer households struggling with their energy bills, first saying she wouldn’t, and then saying she would. None of this is behaviour you would associate with the Iron Lady.
Yet in spite of all this, it would be unwise to write Liz Truss off. For one thing, she’s served as a minister under all three of Britain’s most recent Prime Ministers, suggesting an instinct for political survival unknown to most of her colleagues.
More significantly, she has remained steadfast on some core issues in spite of serving under different leaders.
On economic policy, for instance, she has always been a free market liberal, even when she was a Liberal Democrat, according to her Oxford contemporary Mark Littlewood, now the Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs. The reason she started out as an enthusiast for the EU, he says, is because of its embrace of free market principles, removing barriers to trade between its member states and establishing the single market. Her reason for rejecting it now, according to Littlewood, is because it has abandoned this neo-liberal philosophy and become a socialist behemoth, stifling innovation with excessive regulation.
She’s also proved to be consistently anti-woke, no small thing when culture war issues are becoming increasingly prominent in electoral contests across the Anglosphere. As the Minister for Women and Equalities, a job she’s held alongside her two consecutive Cabinet posts since 2019, she fought off attempts by trans activists and their allies to make it easier for people to legally change their gender. During the leadership contest, she made a point of standing up for free speech, promising to amend the forthcoming Online Safety Bill (an attempt to regulate social media) so it won’t try to prohibit content that is ‘legal but harmful’ to adults. That’s a deeply sinister concept that could be invoked by the state to force YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to remove posts that question the safety of the Covid vaccines or the wisdom of the Net Zero agenda.
In contrast to Boris, Liz doesn’t seem to care for the good opinion of the liberal, metropolitan elite, which was her predecessor’s Achilles’ heel. She comes from a fairy ordinary, middle-class background in a provincial, northern city, the daughter of an academic father and a nurse for a mother, and went to a state school before getting a place at Oxford to do Philosophy, Politics and Economics. She isn’t a lifelong career politician, having qualified as a Chartered Management Accountant while working for Shell between 1996 and 2000, and then went on to work for Cable and Wireless, a British telecommunications company, where she rose to the level of director before leaving in 2005 to stand for Parliament. After failing to win a seat in the House of Commons, she joined the right-leaning think tank Reform, where she co-authored papers on improving academic standards in schools, addressing Britain’s failing competitiveness and tackling serious crime. She was eventually elected as a Conservative MP in 2010.
I first met Liz when she was an education minister. At the time, I was an advocate for education reform, having helped to set up four classical liberal schools in West London, and I thought she had a good grasp of why so many schools are failing in disadvantaged areas, including in parts of her own constituency in Norfolk.
With most senior politicians, you get the impression they aren’t particularly keen on the minutia of public policy and are happy to leave the details to their officials, with the result that most radical initiatives are kicked into the long grass. What preoccupies them is their own press coverage and how they can use it to shin up the greasy pole. But not Liz. She is genuinely interested in policy and knows her civil servants must be kept on a tight rein if any public service reforms are to be pushed through. Later, when I was running a large schools charity and she had become Chief Secretary to the Treasury, I found her to be one of the few Cabinet ministers still committed to education reform.
She is also a poor media performer, coming across as slightly unhinged in television interviews, which, paradoxically, may be an advantage for a leader during a period of national crisis. She’s unlikely to waste much time on something she knows she isn’t very good at.
One of the reasons she seems a bit odd during her public appearances, including set-piece speeches, is because she has a manic energy that is never far from the surface. Not only does she work long hours, but she likes going out to bars and clubs after work, often exhibiting more stamina than her entourage of young aids. That, too, should be an asset in her new job. Boris wasn’t lazy, exactly, but he lost some of his vitality after coming close to death when he caught Covid in 2020. Liz, by contrast, is a human tornado.
Since she was announced as the winner of the Conservative leadership contest on Monday, I’ve been trying my hardest not to get too excited by Britain’s new Prime Minister. I was a Boris enthusiast when he got the top job three years ago, only to be bitterly disappointed when he squandered his political capital on Cop26 and other fashionable causes. But in her victory speech, Liz Truss said she had campaigned as a conservative and would now govern as a conservative. She would be the first British Prime Minister to do that since Margaret Thatcher and, with the right people around her, I think she might just pull it off.
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