U-turns, dodging scrutiny: does Liz Truss share Boris Johnson’s bad habits?

·4-min read

It is perhaps fair to say Tory MPs have mixed feelings about ousting Boris Johnson. The parliamentary party moved decisively against him, only to then spend weeks lamenting the departure of a man who won them an 80-seat majority. Now some fear they are about to replace him with Johnson Mark 2 – but one who shares only his negative characteristics.

While Liz Truss has improved as a campaigner since the leadership race began, not even her diehard fans would put her on a par with Johnson, whose unlikely fusion of baffled bonhomie, deflection through humour and big-state populism helped bring victory in 2019.

Truss’s appeal to Tory members is based on a very different combination of low-tax orthodoxy and the promise of a “straight-talking Yorkshirewoman” who knows precisely what she wants. Her approach to the job would undoubtedly be very different, with former colleagues of the foreign secretary agreeing she is ferociously hard-working and disciplined.

But the longer the contest has gone on, the more observers have noted tendencies within Team Truss to replicate defining elements of Johnson’s No 10, particularly a rush for new policies, often borrowed from others or made up on the hoof, which then need to be amended or ditched amid loud denials of a U-turn.

Truss plays pool during a visit to a youth facility in Chelmsford this week
Truss plays pool during a visit to a youth facility in Chelmsford this week. Photograph: Getty Images

In part this is a factor of a leadership race in which candidates must court a small number of notably right-leaning Tory party members while not overly boxing themselves in, policy-wise, for the moment they enter Downing Street.

Hence the confusing scenes this week as Truss insisted that help with soaring energy bills would be based on tax cuts, while her allies quietly stressed that other help could be forthcoming, and her campaign team sought to vehemently deny any contradiction between the two competing narratives.

A more striking example came the week before, when Truss hastily dropped a loudly touted plan to save £11bn a year with a “war on Whitehall waste”, copied from a proposal by the rightwing TaxPayers’ Alliance, in which the bulk of the savings would have come from capping or reducing public sector pay outside London and the south-east.

This was particularly reminiscent of the latter, embattled period of Johnson’s premiership, where seemingly half-baked policies such as a return to imperial measurements were paraded in the press, largely derided and then forgotten.

In a more alarming facsimile of Johnson’s operation, Truss’s campaign tried to cover up the manoeuvre by falsely blaming the media for “wilful misrepresentation” of a plan that had openly stated its intention in a press release.

While Johnson is a former newspaper columnist who likes to claim comradeship with journalists, his No 10 operation has misled reporters several times, with his allies regularly castigating a supposedly biased media. At a hustings event this week, Truss mimicked this part of the Johnson playbook, saying journalists were trying to “talk our country down”.

Truss has also shown a Johnson-like tendency to be vague or even inaccurate with facts to suit her political purposes, not least her regularly told and much-debunked backstory about how the comprehensive she attended in Leeds was a failing school.

At another hustings event this week, in Cheltenham on Thursday, Truss repeated concerns about disproportionate numbers of women being jailed for not paying the TV licence fee, something factchecking groups have said does not seem to be supported by the evidence.

Another similarity has come in Truss’s avoidance of over-close scrutiny during the contest. Johnson dodged a BBC grilling by Andrew Neil, endured by his rivals, while Truss has refused the corporation’s offer of an interview with Nick Robinson, unlike Rishi Sunak, her opponent.

Of course, as any Labour members who voted for Keir Starmer based on pledges to follow a broadly Corbynite policy platform will know, leadership races and heading a party, let alone the country, are different things. But Truss’s rivals, at least, argue there is a sense of continuity.

“She truly is the heir to BoJo,” one Sunak-supporting source said. “Her team cut and paste policy, put something out in black and white, claim it’s been misinterpreted, and get Brandon [Lewis, a key ally of Johnson and now Truss] out to poop-scoop the next day.”