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Liz Truss: Following in Thatcher's footsteps

Barbara Wesel
September 5, 2022

On Monday, the British Conservatives will announce who succeeds Boris Johnson as UK prime minister. Front runner Liz Truss has been wooing the right wing of the party and polls show her way ahead of Rishi Sunak.

Liz Truss  Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, First Secretary of State departs a cabinet meeting at Downing Street
Liz Truss is looking to become the UK's next prime ministerImage: Justin Ng/Avalon/Photoshot/picture alliance

She is certainly no stranger to making farcical appearances: At the Conservative Party Conference in 2014, Liz Truss, speaking as secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, addressed the quality of British food, and went into raptures over British wheat and the sale of Yorkshire Tea to China. But all of a sudden, she thundered out that Britain was importing two-thirds of its cheese from abroad: "That is a disgrace!" The delegates almost choked on their sandwiches.

Then there is what she once said during her tenure as justice minister, when she was asked in parliament about the measures being taken to combat drones used to smuggle drugs into prisons. There were now special patrol dogs at one of the prisons in question, Truss said, and they barked, which helped to deter the drones.

Social media is full of videos of this and similarly bizarre appearances by Truss that are used by her critics to call into doubt her intelligence and her suitability as a prime minister.

Steady rise

Truss has shown herself to be a survival artist during the Conservative governments of the past 12 years. Her career path has been unswerving in its upward trajectory, from positions at the Ministry of Justice, Treasury and Department of International Trade to her current job as foreign secretary.

While dozens of her colleagues have fallen victim to party infighting and intrigues, she even survived the wave of resignations after the downfall of Theresa May and emerged unscathed from Boris Johnson's last big Cabinet reshuffle. Truss has always been seen as loyal and hard-working, without anyone really scrutinizing whether she has achieved anything.

But her party colleague Rory Stewart, speaking of their time together at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in his political podcast The Rest is Politics, related that Truss' leadership style was like "IBM business management of the 1980s."

Liz Truss: Britain's next prime minister? # DW News

Among other things, he said, she liked to annoy her colleagues with random math problems because that was probably what her father, a professor of math, "did to her when she was at the breakfast table."

Stewart called his experience with Truss "traumatizing."

Nonetheless, she has always worked indefatigably on her public image. Since joining the Foreign Office, she has been a constant presence on Instagram and Twitter, with a photographer always at hand, whether posing with fur hat in Moscow's Red Square or sitting atop a tank in military gear while visiting British troops in Estonia.

And, if critics called her competence into question, for once confusing the Baltic Sea with the Black Sea, for instance, she hit back with photos of her visit to Ukraine and vowed to stand up to Putin. In the Conservative Party, that counts for more than the occasional rhetorical or factual slip-up.

180-degree turns

However, her career with the Conservatives was by no means a foregone conclusion. At her last campaign appearance in London's Wembley Arena, where Truss and her opponent Rishi Sunak presented themselves once again to a few thousand party members, she admitted that she did not have a "traditional Conservative background." Her father was a professor of mathematics, her mother a nurse, and the family was politically rather left-leaning.

As a child, Liz was taken along to anti-nuclear demonstrations — but she has long turned her back on this aspect of her past. The same goes for her first steps in politics, which she made as a student, into the centrist Liberal Democrats. She now dismisses this as youthful indiscretion.

She is similarly casual about her transformation from a pro-European before the 2016 Brexit referendum to one of the most ardent defenders of Britain's exit from the EU. In the past few years, Truss has been shifting more and more to the right and is now seen as one of the most convinced advocates of pure Conservative doctrine — something that goes down well with party members in traditional Tory constituencies in southern England.

Vague program

In Wembley, Truss made clear once more what she did not want: Tax hikes. Once again, she frustrated all those who tried to prise out of her how she intends to combat the multiple crises of rising energy prices and galloping inflation. While many in the country fear that a large number of Britons will have to choose between "heating or eating" this winter, Truss says only that she is against "handouts" from the state, maintaining that lowering taxes is the proven way to create growth.

Graffiti showing Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss with boxing gloves on
The fight between the rival candidates has been a rough oneImage: Paul Faith/AFP

She sees herself as the successor to Margaret Thatcher, who put the British economy on course for growth in the 1980s by means of drastic privatizations and deregulation. Truss also wants to bring down the current rate of inflation by lowering taxes, even if the economists at the Bank of England reject the idea, fearing that it could push already spiraling prices even higher.

Economics researcher Simon Lee, of the University of Hull, also believes that it is "entirely reasonable to expect the UK government to provide millions of individuals, households and companies with the immediate direct financial support they need to survive the cost of living crisis." After all, he says, Britain spent more than 2 trillion pounds ($2.3 trillion; €2.3 trillion) during the financial crisis of 2008 and the recent coronavirus pandemic to prevent the country from falling into ruin.

Truss, however, has left open the question of how she intends to help impoverished families, saying that will be the task of the new treasurer. But he or she will only be able to raise the billions needed by taking on more debt. British national debt already shot up rapidly during the coronavirus crisis; if further large-scale aid programs now become necessary, the burden on the state will grow.

Iron silence instead of Iron Lady?

On this point, however, Truss simply makes no promises at all. She will present her budget when she is in office, she says curtly. Lower taxes will ensure that people have "more money in their pockets."

They are, however, of no use to the masses of low-earners who now have to find thousands of extra pounds to pay drastically higher gas and electricity bills. Here, Truss puts forward the idea that there simply has to be more supply on the energy market. She intends to award dozens of new exploitation concessions for oil and gas in the North Sea. Environmental concerns play no role for her — just as questions of reforming the energy market do not interest her.

With regards to foreign policy, however, it is clear that Truss, if she becomes prime minister, intends to seek a quarrel with the EU and immediately rescind the Northern Ireland Protocol from the Brexit treaty.

People protesting at high fuel prices
Rising energy prices have triggered several protests in BritainImage: picture alliance/ZUMAPRESS.com/Vuk Valcic

Adam Harrison, of the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations, believes that Truss is looking to follow through on Brexit "with the zeal of a convert." Besides this, he says, her politics are "Reaganite in flavor, with a foreign policy world view in which Britain stands alongside America against Russia and China, unsupported by its wimpish European neighbors." Among other things, he says this is shown by her habit of spicing her comments on the international situation with references to the Cold War and liberty.

That might sound disturbing. But Truss does not have to convince a majority of Britons with her plans - only the 160,000 or so Conservative Party members, who represent around 1.5% of the British population. There will not be regular elections for another two years, even if many doubt whether a government led by Truss can survive that long. A majority of Conservative MPs would, in fact, prefer her rival, Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is unclear whether and how long they will submit to Truss — they have already shown in the cases of Theresa May and Boris Johnson how they deal with failing prime ministers.

The coming winter of discontent in Britain, with media headlines about hunger and poverty, the faltering health care system and waves of strikes that have been signaled, will be a major test for an inexperienced head of government. It remains to be seen whether Truss, when confronted with adversity, will jettison her conservative ideology as fast as she did her earlier convictions.

At any rate, the clash between her free-market principles and harsh reality will produce an interesting spectacle.

This article has been translated from German.

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