As the clock ticked down to the start of Monday’s televised Tory leadership debate – a crucial moment in the race to become Britain’s next prime minister – music was heard coming out of Liz Truss’ dressing room. “She was singing and dancing,” said a witness. “It was the campaign anthem: ‘Dancing in the Dark’ by Bruce Springsteen.” The boss.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary is battling former Chancellor Rishi Sunak to succeed Boris Johnson. After a dismal and robotic start to the campaign, Truss has hit its stride and now seems to be enjoying it. The bookmakers make her the favorite to become Prime Minister on September 5; a YouGov survey of party members this month put it at 49% to Sunak’s 31.
If successful, Truss would follow Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May to become the third British occupant of Number 10, all Tories. But his campaign – and even some of his clothes – are mostly inspired by the Iron Lady: low taxes, standing up to Brussels and baiting the Russian bear. In a party still devoted to the cult of Thatcher, this tactic seems to work.
“She’s light on her feet,” says Nadine Dorries, Cabinet Minister and Truss supporter, referring to the Foreign Secretary’s ability to bamboozle his opponent with policy positions that often contradict political orthodoxy and – to the occasion – with its own track record.
Truss presents himself as loyal to Johnson, who is still popular with rank and file members who will vote for the next leader. But she has been planning her leadership bid for months. Likewise, she is now a Brexit convert even though she campaigned to stay in the 2016 referendum, warning of the economic dangers of leaving the EU.
A ministerial colleague said: “The thing about Liz is that she’s basically an anti-establishment figure, an outsider like Thatcher. Party members like it. Sunak, to his obvious discomfort, was portrayed by Truss’ team as a stuffy “mansplainer”, clinging to failing Treasury principles.
Mary Elizabeth Truss was born in 1975 in Oxford. Her mother was a nurse and teacher and her father a math teacher. Both were staunchly anti-Thatcher and staunchly leftist. They raised her as a radical.
As she often points out, she went to a state school in Leeds – Sunak attended elite paying Winchester College – but former pupils say Roundhay was not the dead-end establishment his rhetoric suggests. She ended up at Oxford University where she studied philosophy, politics and economics.
As a student, she was a Liberal Democrat and was already showing her anti-establishment side, calling for the abolition of the monarchy at a party conference. Other campaigners from those years note that she was always a classic liberal in economics, particularly in trade – not far removed from Thatcher’s own views.
Friends say a trip Truss took to Eastern Europe in the early 1990s convinced her Thatcher was right to stand up to the Soviet Union; it wasn’t long before she joined the Conservatives. One of his two daughters would be named Liberty.
Truss graduated as a management accountant and worked for Shell and Cable & Wireless before becoming MP for South West Norfolk in 2010. She was quickly put on a fast-track ministerial track by David Cameron: the new Tory Prime Minister admired her energy, his sense of fun, irreverence and zeal for the free market.
To the general public, however, she was best known for a conservative lecture in 2014 speech in which, as agriculture minister, she was inexplicably angry at high levels of cheese imports from the UK – ‘a disgrace’ – before beaming at the prospect of ‘opening up new markets pork” in China. The delegates were perplexed; the clip went viral.
Truss is often described by Tory MPs as engaging but ‘a bit quirky’. Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, said Truss was “about as close to the crackers as anyone I’ve met in Parliament”. But her rise challenged those who underestimated her.
Her ministerial colleagues say she is hardworking and diligent, but has a mixed record. As justice secretary, she was accused of failing to defend the judges during a Brexit row. More recently, as foreign minister, she helped secure the release from Tehran of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual Iranian-British national. A veteran ambassador said of her performance at the Foreign Office: “I was impressed.”
She had previously become international trade secretary, seizing the “opportunities of Brexit” by striking a series of bilateral trade deals – usually facsimiles of those Britain benefited from via the EU – accompanied by EU flags. Union and the promotion of “Global Britain” .
MPs joke that Truss has become ‘Brexiters’ favorite remnant’; her bid for Number 10 is endorsed by eurosceptics who expect her to pursue a hard line with Brussels – particularly in the corrosive row over Northern Ireland trade deals.
If she becomes Prime Minister, she will face some of the most daunting set of problems inherited by any post-war British leader, including public sector strikes, an NHS on the brink of collapse and a party showing signs exhaustion after 12 years in power. .
Truss’ instinct will be to follow Thatcher: defy convention and try something new. She wants to reduce taxes in the midst of an inflationary crisis, against the advice of many economists.
David Gauke, a former ministerial colleague, says the country will have an interesting time if Truss, the restless radical, prevails: “She will want to challenge received wisdom – even though received wisdom is almost certainly correct.