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 pumping out of Liz Truss’s dressing room. “She was singing and dancing,” said one witness. “It was the campaign anthem: “Dancing in the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen.” The Boss.
Britain’s foreign secretary is battling Rishi Sunak, former chancellor, to succeed Boris Johnson. After a woeful, robotic start to the campaign, Truss has hit her stride and now seems to be enjoying it. Bookmakers make her odds-on favourite to become prime minister on September 5; a YouGov survey of party members this month put her on 49 per cent to Sunak’s 31.
If she succeeds, Truss would follow Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May to become Britain’s third female occupant of Number 10, all Conservative. But her campaign — and even some of her clothes — draw inspiration most heavily from the Iron Lady: low taxes, standing up to Brussels and baiting the Russian bear. In a party still devoted to Thatcher-worship, this tactic seems to be working.
“She’s light on her feet,” says Nadine Dorries, a cabinet minister and Truss supporter, referring to the foreign secretary’s ability to bamboozle her opponent with policy positions often at odds with political orthodoxy and — on occasion — with her own record.
Truss presents herself as loyal to Johnson, who is still popular with grassroots members who will vote for the next leader. But she has been planning her leadership bid for months. Similarly, she is now a convert to Brexit even though she campaigned for Remain in the 2016 referendum, warning of the economic dangers of leaving the EU.
One ministerial colleague says: “The thing about Liz is that she’s essentially an anti-establishment figure, an outsider like Thatcher. The party membership likes that.” Sunak, to his obvious discomfort, has been portrayed by Truss’s team as a stuffy “mansplainer”, clinging to failed Treasury tenets.
Mary Elizabeth Truss was born in 1975 in Oxford. Her mother was a nurse and teacher and her father a professor of mathematics. Both were firmly anti-Thatcher and staunchly leftwing. They raised her as a radical.
As she often points out, she went to a state school in Leeds — Sunak attended the elite, fee-paying Winchester College — but former students say Roundhay was not the dead-end establishment that her rhetoric suggests. She ended up at Oxford university where she read philosophy, politics and economics.
As a student she was a Liberal Democrat and was already showing her anti-establishment edge, calling for the abolition of the monarchy at a party conference. Fellow activists from those years note she was always a classic liberal on economics, particularly on trade — not far removed from Thatcher’s own views.
Friends say a trip Truss made to eastern Europe in the early 1990s convinced her that Thatcher was right to stand up to the Soviet Union; it was not long before she joined the Tories. One of her two daughters would be named Liberty.
Truss qualified as a management accountant and worked for Shell and Cable & Wireless before becoming the MP for South West Norfolk in 2010. She was quickly put on a ministerial fast-track by David Cameron: the new Tory prime minister admired her energy, sense of fun, irreverence and free market zeal.
To the wider public she was, however, best known for a 2014 Tory conference speech in which, as agriculture minister, she became inexplicably angry about the UK’s high levels of cheese imports — “a disgrace” — before beaming at the prospect of “opening up new pork markets” in China. Delegates were bemused; the clip went viral.
Truss is often described by Tory MPs as engaging but “a bit weird”. Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, said Truss was “about as close to properly crackers as anyone I’ve met in parliament”. But her ascent has defied those who underestimated her.
Ministerial colleagues say she is hard working and diligent but she has a mixed record. As justice secretary she was accused of failing to stand up for judges in a Brexit row. More recently as foreign secretary she helped to secure the release from Tehran of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian-British dual national. One veteran ambassador said of her performance at the Foreign Office: “I’ve been impressed.”
She had previously come into her own as international trade secretary, grabbing the “opportunities of Brexit” by striking a series of bilateral trade deals — usually facsimiles of ones Britain enjoyed through the EU — accompanied by Union flags and the promotion of “Global Britain”.
MPs joke that Truss has become “the Brexiters’ favourite Remainer”; her bid for Number 10 is endorsed by Eurosceptics who will expect her to pursue a tough line with Brussels — especially in the corrosive row over Northern Ireland’s trading arrangements.
If she does become prime minister, she will face a set of some of the most daunting problems inherited by any postwar UK leader, including public sector strikes, an NHS on the edge of breakdown and a party showing signs of exhaustion after 12 years in office.
Truss’s instincts will be to follow Thatcher: defy convention and try something new. She wants to cut taxes in the middle of an inflationary crisis, against the advice of many economists.
David Gauke, a former ministerial colleague, says the country will be in for an interesting time if Truss, the restless radical, prevails: “She will want to challenge the received wisdom — even if the received wisdom is almost certainly correct.”