Who is Liz Truss? A search for information on this point reveals a contradiction inside an enigma: a child of committed socialists who espoused liberalism at university then turned to increasingly right-wing conservatism thereafter; a fervent Remainer who has gone on a rapid journey to becoming the hardest of Brexiters; a Margaret Thatcher tribute act who apes Thatcher’s fashion sense but who waves in the wind when it comes to her political position at any given moment in time.
Liz Truss presents as a non-controversial, even boringly conventionally middleclass shires Conservative, but was nevertheless nearly vetoed for standing for her constituency when the ‘rural Tory activists dubbed the Turnip Taliban’ objected to her non-disclosure of an 18-month affair. She declares herself to be a safe pair of hands, but her record of gaffes indicates otherwise. Indeed, she has been singled out by Dominic Cummings (admittedly a man with his own chequered professional past) to be “as close to properly crackers as anybody I have met in Parliament” and who would consequently be “an even worse PM than Johnson”.
To be fair to Cummings, he is not the only one who has come up with the ‘crackers’ judgement, given that one of her speeches was once pulled from a government website for content that was branded “bonkers”. The description of the redacted content sounds remarkably similar to her recent bizarre declaration that prosperous Leeds North East, where she lived as a teenager was part of the ‘Red Wall’ and her denouncement of the school that sent her to Oxford as “failing kids”.
Ex-Tory minister Timothy (now Lord) Kirkhope who was the MP for Leeds NE at the time, has commented that her depiction of his 1990s constituency is “patently untrue”. Family houses in Roundhay currently sell for approximately £400,000 to £900,000. And one of the attractions that keeps Roundhay house prices high is the local state school – the one that Truss attended – which has an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating. Fellow pupils at the time that Truss attended the school have lined up to record their outrage, citing very different memories.
“Not the slickest of performers”
So, might Truss be an even worse prime minister than Boris Johnson? The omens are not good. It is perhaps this slippery attitude to the truth that is the key to Truss as a politician, a quality that she shares with Johnson. However she lacks his ability to coerce people into believing his version of events.
Truss is by her own admission “not the slickest of performers” but puts that down to being raised in Yorkshire, because “I’m somebody who says what I think, I’m honest, I was brought up in Yorkshire – I say what I mean and I mean what I say”. This creates a strange ‘wait, what’ moment, given that Truss changes what she says/thinks/means at the drop of a hat. Granted she only spent her teenage years in Yorkshire, but ‘honest straight-talking’ doesn’t seem to be one of the qualities she inherited from her time with us.
As the Financial Times states, up to this point, many people would think of Liz Truss as ‘the cheese lady’, drawn from her surreal speech at the 2014 Tory conference, where she berated the audience about produce imports in the style of a struggling student teacher, leaving cringing gaps for applause that is achingly slow in coming. She now admits to the delivery being “a bit over-exuberant”.
Politico is harsher: Some people, “criticize her social skills … a habit of standing ‘much too close’ to people when talking to them … [and being] ‘weird’ in social situations”. Civil servants have reported being unnerved by her habit of firing random maths questions at them.
She also does not share Johnson’s (admittedly selective) ability to turn on the charm in international relations. Her most recent bizarre performance as foreign secretary earned her the nickname ‘Dizzie Lizzie’, most particularly for her excruciating negotiations with Russia.
A cascade of controversy
Truss’s proposed policies have done little better when they have been circulated beyond her inner circle. For example, she hastily redacted her declaration that people in the North should be paid less for the same job than people in the South and shocked the Department for Education with her suggestion that the current Tory flagship education policy is reliant on ‘failing’ academies that should be summarily abandoned in favour of free schools.
While, to be fair to Truss, there is significant evidence that that the academies are now anti-Conservative in conception, and are indeed failing, her demonstrated lack of ability to arrive at and implement a cohesive policy on any major government initiative would continue to be of great concern.
Her time at the Ministry of Justice was also fraught with controversy, with the Lord Chief Justice lambasting her for failing to support judges and putting out inaccurate information. She was removed after 11 months in the role.
Truss has childishly insulted the first ministers of both Scotland and Wales in her campaign, regardless of the fact that that the diplomacy that she does (or does not) exert as prime minister may be the deciding factor on whether the United Kingdom union is maintained.
She has also insisted that despite the risk of fuel poverty for a huge number of people over this coming winter, she will favour tax cuts over handouts to help them pay their bills. She seems oblivious to the immediacy of the problem, and to the fact that people on the lowest incomes don’t pay tax. For a person who prides herself on her quick-fire calculation skills, it seems odd that she cannot seem to grasp that the average annual heating bill quoted for 2022–23 will absorb more than half of the state pension, the only income for some of the oldest and most vulnerable.
So bad she’s funny?
In the early 2000s, the political comedy series The Thick of It followed the progress of vain, airhead prime minister Nicola Murray, whose ability to charm the public is underpinned by a weak character and even shallower intellect. The continual crises this causes creates the core of the comedy narrative, as her gaffes are desperately covered up by her hapless spin doctor, until an inappropriate leak to the press pulls the pin on his temper.
In an uncanny episode of life imitating art, Dominic Cummings commented:
“I gave Truss the nickname the human hand grenade … Truss is the only minister I shouted at in No 10. The reason was her compulsive pathological leaking … this routinely caused chaos and often damaged the UK.”
Cummings suggested she focus on her “real job … where you’re failing to grip your department”. Her response, he says, was “what do you mean, the real job?”
Perhaps this is the key to Truss – her ability to bluster on, unhampered by any sense of the ridiculous, and an utter lack of self-consciousness. Her so-called ‘Thatcher Cosplay album’ on social media attests to this.
As does her employment of a ‘digital communications advisor’ and official photographer, and her startling question to Nicola Sturgeon about how to go about getting one’s picture in Vogue.
Scary Tory clowns
Johnson is frequently depicted by cartoonists as a clown, and the common public reference to him as ‘Boris’ compounds this disarming image. However, the very serious damage he has done to the UK cannot yet be fully measured. Max Hastings comments “Johnson’s premiership has been a long, sometimes apparently interminable, embarrassment”.
Similarly, to depict Truss as a comedy act while the nation is amidst multiple dilemmas is a very dangerous attitude to take. As Gaby Hinscliff points out:
“There are still people who can’t take Liz Truss seriously, but it’s this kind of sneering that has arguably been the making of her … even as she built a power base in plain sight, she was never deemed sufficiently threatening … Now she’s having the last laugh, except this isn’t funny. She could be running the country in four weeks. If that’s not serious, what is?”
Brexit Boris took an axe
And gave the UK forty whacks
And then when he was fully done
Lizzie gave it forty-one
(with apologies to the unnamed creators of the folk rhyme ‘Lizzie Borden’)
But perhaps the last word is best left to Liz Truss herself, from a hastily deleted tweet.