Liz Truss finishes extraordinary political transformation to become next Tory PM

·7-min read
Liz Truss finishes extraordinary political transformation to become next Tory PM

As the new prime minister, Liz Truss will enter No 10 on Tuesday having won the backing of Tory party members by presenting herself as an avid-Brexiteer who is the free market-loving heir to Margaret Thatcher.

Winning the support of Conservative activists in the leadership vote a day earlier was the final move in an extraordinary series of political transformations throughout her life.

Despite being billed by Ms Truss’s allies as the heir to the Iron Lady’s throne, she marched in her youth side-by-side with left-wingers to demand the ousting of Mrs Thatcher and supported remaining in the European Union in the 2016 referendum.

The Conservatives were not even her first political party, having initially had a brush with the Liberal Democrats and using a speech at their 1994 conference to back a motion calling for the abolition of the monarchy.

At the age of 47, Ms Truss will take over the reigns from Boris Johnson as the third female prime minister in the United Kingdom’s history, having beaten her long-term Brexiteer rival Rishi Sunak in the poll of Tory members.

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

Aged 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 has told the BBC.

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

Ms Truss says 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”.

Conservative Party leadership contender Liz Truss before a live television debate
Conservative Party leadership contender Liz Truss before a live television debate (Victoria Jones/PA)

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

It was there that she became active in student politics, with the Liberal Democrats, and espoused the 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 future husband Hugh O’Leary. She has two teenage daughters.

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 the 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.

2010 General Election campaign Apr 29th
Liz Truss, canvassing in the village of West Walton, Norfolk (Chris Radburn/PA)

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

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 she 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”.

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

Conservative Party annual conference 2015
Then-environment secretary Liz Truss addressing the Conservative Party conference in Manchester (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

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.

She was rewarded with the role of Foreign Secretary, becoming only the UK’s second woman to hold the title, in September after Mr Raab was moved aside in the wake of his handling of the Afghanistan crisis.

In the Foreign Office she took a tough stance in talks and would anger the EU with legislation threatening to break international law over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Brexit
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss meeting European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic for talks in central London on the Northern Ireland Protocol (Rob Pinney/PA)

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 ops that 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 perched 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’s three decades earlier, while a leadership debate outfit also bore uncanny similarities.

And she has sought to portray herself as her tax-slashing successor during the fight for No 10, though Mr Sunak has branded her polices the opposite of Thatcherism and that they fail to meet the rapidly worsening cost-of-living crisis.

Ms Truss has appeared undaunted by such attacks, instead adopting a Johnsonian approach to deploy unwavering optimism for Britain’s future, including by hitting out at “too much talk” over the inevitability of a recession.

She has spent many years setting the stage, and now the Tory members, representing somewhere around 0.3% of the UK population, have selected her as the lead in the nation’s political drama, despite Conservative MPs having favoured Mr Sunak, the former chancellor.

Some have described taking the highest office in the land right now as a poisoned chalice, what with an economic crisis threatening living standards, strikes causing major disruption and the need to turn around the public opinion of a divided Tory party struggling in the polls after more than 12 years in Government.

Ms Truss will need to use the full extent of her powers of political persuasion to bring the nation with her through the crises and lead her party into the next general election.