Liz Truss: Anti-Thatcher campaigner on the brink of becoming next Tory PM

·6-min read

Liz Truss would be an unlikely Conservative prime minister.

But if the polls prove correct, that is what the fierce free-marketeer will become in only a few days’ time after charming Tory Party members with promises of tax cuts and attacks on “Treasury orthodoxy”.

Seen by supporters as the spiritual heir to Margaret Thatcher, it is a remarkable rise for someone who in her youth marched side by side with left-wingers to demand the ousting of the Iron Lady.

Yet it would be just one of a series of political transformations and turnarounds during her career.

The avid Brexiteer, never far from a clash with the European Union, campaigned to Remain, and joined the Conservatives after a brush with the Liberal Democrats.

Now the woman who became only the UK’s second female foreign secretary last year at the age of 46 is the undoubted frontrunner to enter No 10.

Born in Oxford in 1975 to parents she describes as “left-wing”, her mother, a nurse and a teacher, took a young Elizabeth to marches for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s and to “peace camp”.

At the age of four, she moved to Paisley in Scotland, where she has recalled yelling a slogan that perhaps no other Tory Cabinet minister has ever yelled before.

“It was in Scottish so it was ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, oot, oot, oot’,” she told the BBC.

National Archives release
Liz Truss had an early ‘fascination’ with former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher (PA)

But Ms Truss also had an early “fascination” with Mrs Thatcher, saying she was around eight when she agreed to play her during a mock school election. “I got no votes,” she revealed.

Ms Truss said her father, a mathematics professor, has long struggled to comprehend her move to conservatism, believing, perhaps wishfully, she is a “sleeper working from inside to overthrow the regime”.

The family later moved to Leeds, where Ms Truss attended Roundhay state secondary school before studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University.

There she became active in student politics, first with the Liberal Democrats, even once espousing an anti-monarchist sentiment.

“I think it was fair to say that, when I was in my youth, I was a professional controversialist and I liked exploring ideas and stirring things up,” she told the BBC’s Political Thinking with Nick Robinson.

At the 1997 Conservative Party conference, she met her future husband, Hugh O’Leary, with whom she has two daughters, now teenagers.

Ms Truss worked as an accountant for Shell and Cable & Wireless but her heart was in politics, though she suffered the setbacks of two failed electoral bids.

After unsuccessful runs for the Tories in Hemsworth in 2001 and Calder Valley in 2005, she was elected as a councillor in Greenwich in 2006 before becoming deputy director of the right-of-centre Reform think tank two years later.

But she was selected as the candidate for the Tory safe seat of South West Norfolk after making it on to David Cameron’s A-list of priority candidates.

She entered Parliament after winning in the 2010 general election with a comfortable majority of more than 13,000 votes.

2010 General Election campaign Apr 29th
Liz Truss canvassingas Tory candidate for South West Norfolk in the 2010 general election campaign (Chris Radburn/PA)

Her candidacy narrowly survived an attempt by traditionalist members of her local Tory association – nicknamed the “Turnip Taliban” over their conservative views and their local agricultural product – to deselect her after it emerged that she had had an affair with married Conservative MP Mark Field.

During her early days in Parliament, she co-authored the Britannia Unchained book alongside Thatcherite future Cabinet colleagues Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab.

It set out proposals to strip back regulation and encourage innovation, but caused controversy with a claim that British workers are “among the worst idlers in the world” – comments that cane back to haunt her during the campaign, after a leaked recording revealed her claiming that British workers need “more graft”.

Two years after entering Parliament, Ms Truss was part of the Government, being made an education minister in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition.

After clashes with Lib Dem deputy prime minister Sir Nick Clegg, she was promoted to environment secretary in 2014.

But while her fortunes were rising in Westminster, her reputation as a speechmaker faltered.

It was in the environment brief that she gave an often-ridiculed address to the Tory conference where she discussed her left-to-right conversion in a pantomime manner.

Her tone switched to a serious one when decrying the state of play that saw the UK importing two-thirds of its cheese. “That is a disgrace,” she insisted, deadpan.

Ms Truss’s star kept rising, however, and she did a year as justice secretary before heading to the Treasury as chief secretary and then leading the Department for International Trade.

It was during this period that her prolific and carefully curated social media output saw the department nicknamed the “Department for Instagramming Truss”.

Another political conversion was under way, and she shifted from arguing to stay in the EU at the 2016 referendum to become a strong defender of the decision to Leave.

Conservative leadership bid
Liz Truss replaced Dominic Raab as Foreign Secretary (Aaron Chown/PA)

She inherited the role of Foreign Secretary in September after Mr Raab was moved aside in the wake of his handling of the Afghanistan crisis.

Here, she would take a tough stance in talks and anger the EU with legislation threatening to potentially break international law over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

She would also oversee the successful release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori from Iranian detention where other ministers had failed.

The Foreign Office gave her a much higher profile and she seized on it with numerous eye-catching photo opportunities which bore a resemblance to Mrs Thatcher’s escapades.

Though the frequent comparisons with the Tory grandee are at times derided as lazy and sexist, they are comparisons that Ms Truss has clearly sought to encourage.

Ms Truss donned military gear and posed in a tank for pictures during a visit to Estonia, echoing an image of Mrs Thatcher in a tank in West Germany in 1986.

Her choice of Russian hat on a visit to Moscow in February emulated that of Mrs Thatcher three decades earlier, while a leadership debate outfit also bore uncanny similarities.

And she has sought to portray herself as the Iron Lady’s tax-cutting heir during the fight for No 10, even as rival Rishi Sunak has branded her polices the opposite of Thatcherism and critics have argued that they fail to meet the rapidly worsening cost-of-living crisis.

Ms Truss has appeared undaunted by such attacks, hitting out at “too much talk” over the inevitability of recession and pledging to create more opportunities for British business.

Those attacks appear to have done little to dent her standing among her parliamentary colleagues, with several prominent Tory MPs switching sides to back her bid as the tide turned against the former chancellor.

And with newspaper reports full of speculation about who might make up a Truss Cabinet, it appears that confidence remains high that she is only a few days from becoming prime minister.

But the scale of the economic crisis facing Ms Truss, if and when she steps over the threshold of Downing Street, is hard to understate.

Having undergone her own political transformation, voters will be hoping she can bring the same pace of change to the country.