Liz Truss will go down in history as the shortest serving British prime minister, and arguably the most hapless. The irony is that before entering Downing Street she was a political survivor who had lasted eight years in the cabinet under three different prime ministers. Her skill had been to adapt to others’ instincts; her downfall was to follow her own.
Truss’s chance to become prime minister came in July 2022, when Boris Johnson resigned after months of scandals. She pitched herself as a continuity candidate, while setting out a vision of tax cuts that differed sharply from Johnson’s own mandate. When her rival Rishi Sunak argued this would lead to higher mortgage rates, she accused him of “negative, declinist language”.
For party members still in awe of the memory of Margaret Thatcher, and emboldened by having enacted Brexit in the face of political opposition, Truss’s straight-talking, full-throated conservatism was irresistible. She beat Sunak among party members, by 81,000 votes to 60,000.
Truss was only the second prime minister elected by party members. The wider public knew little about her. She had been foreign secretary, her highest profile job before Downing Street, for less than a year.
From the beginning, her time as prime minister appeared ill-fated. Her first speech was delayed by rainstorms. When Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II died on Truss’s third day in office, she struggled to find a register equal to the national mood.
After the 10 days of national mourning ended, she and her then chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng announced a package of unfunded tax cuts in a “mini” Budget that shocked financial markets. Instead of the expected political honeymoon, Truss found her authority shredded within two weeks of taking office. Having not chosen Truss as their prime minister, voters found it easy to abandon her: by mid-October, her approval rating had fallen to minus 70.
Born into a leftwing family — her father a maths professor, her mother a nurse and teacher — Truss grew up in Scotland and Yorkshire. She went to a comprehensive school, then read philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University. She was president of the university’s Liberal Democrats, but in 1996 in her early twenties she joined the Conservatives, who were closer to her free-market outlook. She named her first daughter Liberty.
Truss was elected an MP for South West Norfolk in 2010, and was one of the authors of Britannia Unchained, a pro-enterprise manifesto that criticised British workers as “idlers”.
Her cabinet career began in 2014, when David Cameron appointed her as secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs. Her tenure is remembered for a speech to Conservative party conference, championing British produce to a baffled audience. She labelled the fact that the UK imported two-thirds of its cheese “a disgrace”, before proudly announcing: “In December I’ll be in Beijing opening up new pork markets”.
The speech contained many of Truss’s hallmarks: a reverence of Thatcher, a rage against declinism (in this case, those who believed the UK could not hope for food self-sufficiency), and an apparent failure to appreciate her own awkwardness. “I thought the speech had gone quite well,” she later recalled.
Truss backed Remain in the EU referendum, but quickly transformed into a Brexit enthusiast. Theresa May appointed her lord chancellor, charged with safeguarding the judicial system. When the Daily Mail newspaper in 2016 labelled three judges “enemies of the people” for ruling against the government, Truss declined to defend them. “She was completely and absolutely wrong. And I am very disappointed,” said the then lord chief justice, Lord John Thomas.
In her subsequent roles, Truss seemed determined to make her mark. As international trade secretary under Johnson, she launched trade negotiations with New Zealand and Australia. The resulting deals were greeted furiously by the farmers she had once championed.
“The UK has taken the choice of basically doing a full opening of their agricultural market. That’s not the choice we have made or would ever make,” the EU’s top trade official, Sabine Weyand, said wryly. Truss understood that, politically, the existence of the trade deals mattered more than the precise terms.
Promoted to foreign secretary, Truss oversaw the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman whose imprisonment by Tehran had been a source of embarrassment. Within Westminster, she became well-known for her embrace of Instagram. Like Johnson, she seemed to be having fun in politics.
But there were signs of a dismissive attitude towards expertise. On the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she flew to Moscow to meet her opposite number Sergei Lavrov, against her officials’ advice. Lavrov sought to make her look a fool by asking whether she recognised Russian sovereignty over Rostov and Voronezh. When Truss said she would never do so, Lavrov pointed out that they were undisputed parts of Russia. An aide later said she had misheard the question.
Dominic Cummings, one-time adviser to Johnson, warned that Truss would be a “guaranteed fiasco” as prime minister. This counted for little in the leadership campaign. Truss courted the right of the party, and squeezed into the run-off, partly because the alternatives, Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch, were even less tested. Sunak had the most support among Tory MPs, but it was soon clear that Tory members saw him as disloyal to Johnson and wedded to high taxes, and would choose anyone but him.
Truss was more interested in policy detail than her predecessor. She offered a range of right-wing promises. She would undo the rise in national insurance introduced to fund the health and social care system and the increase in corporation tax to unleash investment. Echoing former US president George HW Bush, she vowed “no new taxes”. She wanted to reintroduce fracking, clamp down on solar farms, and tackle “woke civil service culture”. She said she would never introduce a public health lockdown.
These libertarian policies delighted free-market think tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs. But their foundations were dubious. Renewable energy and Covid-19 lockdowns had polled well with the electorate. The UK’s economy was not that of the early 1980s, with businesses wanting swingeing deregulation.
Truss was uncompromising. Her supporters had played up comparisons with Thatcher: “U-turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning,” said Simon Clarke, MP, who would take a leading role in her government. After winning, she didn’t appoint a single prominent Sunak supporter to her cabinet.
The turning point was the “mini” budget on September 23rd. Even Tory MPs were shocked by the scale of tax cuts funded by borrowing and their slant towards the wealthy. A dramatic fall in sterling was followed by a rise in gilt yields, emergency intervention by the Bank of England and a painful jump in mortgage rates. Truss was a prime minister in a hurry, but she had her supporters rushing for the exits.
To reassure the markets, Truss had no option but to U-turn on income tax cuts for high earners. She tried to stabilise her leadership at a sombre party conference by blaming “the anti-growth coalition” for opposing her plans. That rang hollow given that many of her own MPs, and the debt markets, were part of it.
Truss jettisoned Kwarteng as chancellor, and appointed Jeremy Hunt, who in turn jettisoned much of her platform. Corporation tax would rise after all; most other tax cuts would be scrapped too; tax rises and spending cuts were inevitable. Explaining such a humiliation required a feat of communication. Instead Truss ended a press conference after just eight minutes, and sat silently during a later session of the House of Commons.
Two days later, the home secretary Suella Braverman resigned over an apparently minor mishandling of government documents. In her resignation letter, Braverman made clear she had “concerns about the direction of this government”. The same day, Tory MPs were told they would lose the whip if they didn’t vote in favour of fracking. Several rebelled, and in the ensuing chaos, the chief whip and her deputy had to clarify they had not resigned. “I think it’s a shambles and a disgrace,” said one backbencher Charles Walker. “I’m livid.”
Although Conservative party rules held she could not be challenged as leader within her first year, Truss’s resignation seemed only a matter of time. It came on Thursday. At the age of 47, she became Britain’s youngest former prime minister since Robert Peel in 1835. Peel returned to the office six years later. A similar comeback for Truss appears almost inconceivable.
— Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022