OPINION - Why no one should underestimate Liz Truss

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  • Liz Truss
    Liz Truss
    British Conservative Party politician (born 1975)
  • Boris Johnson
    Boris Johnson
    Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since 2019
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (Hollie Adams/PA) (PA Wire)
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (Hollie Adams/PA) (PA Wire)

Faced with growing questions over his leadership, what better way for Boris Johnson to eliminate a pretender to his throne than to hand them the seemingly impossible task of solving the post-Brexit conundrum of Northern Ireland?

“It’s a very canny move by Number 10,” says one seasoned Tory party figure of the Prime Minister’s decision to appoint Liz Truss to the Brexit role vacated by Lord Frost. “She either has to compromise on the Northern Ireland Protocol or she has to upset Joe Biden.”

Paul Goodman, editor of the Conservative Home website, goes even further, arguing the Foreign Secretary’s new role is “consistent less with a powerful Truss regaining Europe policy for her department than with a resourceful Johnson handing her a poisoned fruit.”

But with Conservative MPs in a mutinous mood over further Covid restrictions and Johnson battered by sleaze allegations and a by-election defeat in North Shropshire, the question is whether Truss can dodge the trap and use the role to further burnish her credentials as a future leader in 2022.

“She is the one to beat at the moment,” says one fellow female Conservative MP. “She is a serious contender and she has a strategy to win.”

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (Leon Neal/PA) (PA Wire)
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (Leon Neal/PA) (PA Wire)

Truss - an ardent supporter of the Remain campaign in 2016 before becoming a fully paid up Brexiter after the referendum - has already signalled her intent to take a hard line with Brussels in talks on the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the 2019 EU-UK deal which avoids the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Despite talk of a compromise from Johnson, she has insisted UK demands to rewrite the protocol and remove the role played by the European Court of Justice have not changed.

The hard line stance was seen as a clear signal to the Eurosceptic right of the Conservative Party who helped secure the Tory crown for Johnson and will be crucial again in any contest to replace him.

“As someone who doesn’t hide her ambition to be the next Conservative leader, she will want to appear tough in dealing with the EU, in order to secure the support of the party’s right,” wrote Charles Grant, Director at the Centre for European Reform think-tank.

It’s a position that comes with some jeopardy. It risks a trade war with the EU and tensions with the US President who has repeatedly expressed concerns over the UK’s threat to tear up the protocol. Pull it off though and she will be in an even stronger position.

With allies of Truss actively talking up her chances of becoming leader should a contest be triggered in the New Year, the Foreign Secretary has also been accused of shamelessly plugging her anti lockdown credentials in a further play to the libertarian wing of the party.

Liz Truss Truss was an early backer of Boris Johnson during the Tory leadership race (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)
Liz Truss Truss was an early backer of Boris Johnson during the Tory leadership race (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

Her open displays of ambition - think of the carefully studied imitations of her hero Margaret Thatcher in a tank last month - have irritated some of her colleagues who think she is making her pitch to be leader too early.

Others think that by becoming Foreign Secretary - the first female Conservative to hold the post which is one of the four great offices of state - she has already reached her peak.

“People have definitely underestimated her. She has got much further than people expected,” says one Tory grandee. “But there is a sense that her leading the party could be a step too far.”

A former Conservative minister adds spikily: “She is useful to the Prime Minister as a convert to Brexit and the ‘global opportunities’ it offers…she is even more of a zealot…..and by promoting her he has ensured Rishi [Sunak] is not the only pretender to the throne.”

Others are even more cutting: “Anyone who thinks she will be a warm character who wins over normal voters are deluded,” says a Tory MP. “Her main problem is she believes in nothing.”

But her supporters insist she should not be underestimated. They say her political ruthlessness (she was a Lib Dem during her student days at Oxford) and ability to bounce back from previous failures are signs of a deeper resilience than her detractors give her credit for.

She is now the longest continuous serving Cabinet minister in Government having been appointed as a junior minister by David Cameron in 2014. The MP for South West Suffolk, who entered Parliament as part of Cameron’s new intake 11 years ago, quickly rose through the ranks, serving as Environment Secretary and then Justice Secretary under Theresa May.

She was demoted to Chief Secretary to the Treasury after failing to back the judiciary when the Daily Mail branded judges “Enemies of the People” during the Brexit wars but bounced back again under Johnson who made her International Trade Secretary.

Although critics dismissed the series of new trade deals she delivered as “cut and paste” jobs from agreements the UK already enjoyed while part of the EU, her championing of free trade and Johnson’s Global Britain agenda played well with Brexiters and the Conservative grassroots.

It is her Thatcherite agenda of low tax, small state free market economics which have so endeared her to the right of the party just as it grows weary of Johnson’s chaotic administration and higher spending, higher taxes approach.

According to Conservative Home website she now enjoys a 82 point satisfaction rating among Tory members - a poll she has now led for over a year. Her fiercest rival for the leadership, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, is 30 points behind.

Tory sources say Ms Truss has been “on manoeuvres” for at least the past three years and has been hosting private meetings with MPs over champagne – dubbed ‘fizz with Liz’ - at the Mayfair private members club 5 Hertford Street. A Liz for Leader WhatsApp group has reportedly been set up

Her most recent Instagram post showing Truss posing grandly in front of a fireplace with a hint of the Union Jack flag in the background has been ridiculed as a bid to replace the Queen never mind the Prime Minister.

For critics, the new Brexit role has presented yet another opportunity to reprise some of her embarrassing gaffes including her 2014 speech to the Conservative party conference where she angrily branded Britain’s reliance on imported cheese “a disgrace”.

The speech is widely used as evidence that she is not up to the job of high office. Even former aides admit it was a terrible speech. “She’s a Marmite politician,” says Kirsty Buchanan, a former special adviser to Truss. “The only thing that unites everyone about Liz is that that was possibly one of the worst speeches that anyone had ever seen.”

But Buchanan insists Truss isn’t given a fair crack of the whip and hints that she may even be a victim of sexism from male colleagues in the party who have never taken her seriously. Her secondary school education at a state comprehensive in Leeds may also be a factor: Johnson’s cabinet is still dominated by publicly educated ministers.

“People misread a lack of stuffiness for a lack of seriousness,” Buchanan says. “If you read across to someone like Boris Johnson, he is not stuffy either but no one questions his intellectual capabilities.”

She describes her as “dispassionate and methodical” and dismisses suggestions from some that she has never delivered anything significant in Government pointing to her track record in squeezing £500m out of the Treasury for prisons while Justice Secretary and the recently signed Australia trade deal for which she laid the groundwork.

Endorsement from former Chancellor George Osborne may also have helped her cause. Following her appointment to the Brexit role he described her as “capable” and suggested she may now have the “tools to be the most powerful Foreign Secretary for many decades”.

Even those on the left insist she should be taken seriously. Writing in the New Statesman, the author and broadcaster Paul Mason says: “Truss is the real thing: a political chameleon who will shamelessly channel Thatcher just as relentlessly as Johnson channels Winston Churchill.”

But some Conservatives remain unconvinced, arguing that her popularity with the party’s grassroots has not yet been properly tested.

Tory peer and leading pollster Lord Hayward says: “There are more popular people in the Tory Parliamentary party and the Conservative party at large don’t know her yet.”

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