It is very easy to describe Liz Truss as the epitome of the modern career politician, and just as difficult to refute it. It is also difficult to see what qualities have brought her to the point where she and her backers imagine she is a plausible leader of their party and prime minister.
Yet for some time she has been the members’ darling, according to polls taken by the website Conservative Home. It could be the strength of her convictions. However dramatically her political principles change, her certainty about them never wavers. In these days, certainty is a much sought-after quality while unwavering political principles have been out of fashion for some years.
The LibDem student
Truss began her career as chair of Oxford University’s Liberal Democratic Party, with ideas galaxies away from those she currently espouses. She was a champion of civil liberties, and in July 1994 held the Liberal Democrat banner at a demonstration at Twyford Down against Tory home secretary Michael Howard’s Criminal Justice Bill – a puny thing compared to Priti Patel’s present intentions.
She also gave a fierce denunciation of the monarchy at a LibDem party conference, a performance which hinted that she had a taste for the limelight. But then something happened during her last year at university, and in 1996 she jumped ship and joined the Tories.
An affair and its after-shocks
In 2001 having contested the safe Labour seat of Hemsworth she was given a mentor to help sharpen her act. The mentor was Mark Field MP and they went on to have an affair, which in 2006 became the cause of his divorce.
Whilst still involved in the affair however, in 2005 Truss was selected as parliamentary candidate for the marginal seat of Calder Valley, after local Tories fell out of love with their candidate at the time. Ironically it was over allegations the candidate had been having an affair with the constituency chairman. The Truss affair remained secret, though she still lost.
She was later shortlisted for the safe seat of Bromley and Chislehurst, though that eventually went to Bob Neill among allegations of freemasonry. About this time the affair was eventually revealed and made headlines, and according to the Daily Mail “her name was brought up in every incident that happened inside the party”. She was appointed deputy director of the Reform think tank, a useful platform to extend her political contacts.
Then Truss was implausibly adopted as parliamentary candidate for the safe Tory seat of South West Norfolk. The membership was unaware of the earlier affair at the time. Once they found out, many members took exception to such moral laxity. This disgruntled rural group became known as the Turnip Taliban and demanded a review, but Truss survived and won. Her father, a teacher with left wing leanings, refused to canvass for her.
Coalition with LibDems
Her first ministerial appointment was as parliamentary under-secretary of state for childcare and education, as part of the coalition with the Liberal Democrats. From outside Westminster and probably within the Liberal Democrats, it was assumed the first priority of the coalition was to govern the country. Whereas the first priority of the Tories was to undermine the Liberal Democrats at every opportunity.
Education was one of those departments where fighting between Tories and LibDems was fiercest, though it is doubtful whether the Liberal Democrats realised what it was about. It was at this point that your correspondent met Truss. The occasion was with a distraught mother to discuss the tragic death of her child. Truss neither addressed the mother directly, called her by her name or offered any sympathy for her plight. The impression given was that the meeting was merely an annoying interruption in a busy day.
Her tendency to see voters as pieces on a board to be moved at will had been established earlier. She and a few other young Tory hopefuls, including Witham’s Priti Patel, published a book called Britannia Unchained. It claimed the British “are among the worst idlers in the world” and “work among the lowest hours”.
A new Margaret Thatcher?
Good fortune seems to have been the theme of her career, since even her staunchest supporters seem unable to identify particular strengths. Her hope is clearly that she will be seen as the new Margaret Thatcher, on the grounds perhaps that she is blonde and lacks both a sense of humour and an awareness of the ridiculous. She has achieved nothing in her ministerial appointments, but she has avoided bad headlines. She seems gullible, having been duped into several media photo shoots in bizarre settings, including one in which she appears to be rising from the toilet.
But while many of her colleagues have seen their careers run into controversy and mockery, her own appointments have skated past controversial spending departments and the difficult business of running the country. One of her admirers has described her as ‘the last true Tory’, a Margaret Thatcher redux. Members probably see her as the last hope of the Tory party.