Some things we should know about Liz Truss

Mike Phipps examines the dismal record of the Tory leadership candidate predicted to be the next prime minister

Who is Liz Truss? Was she always like this? Perhaps not. Born to parents whom she described as being “to the left of Labour”, Liz Truss attended Roundhay School in Leeds, which she later said had “let down” children, an assessment disputed by fellow students.

At university, she was President of Oxford University Liberal Democrats and a staunch advocate for the abolition of the monarchy. She joined the Conservatives in 1996, at the peak of John Major’s government’s unpopularity, a year before it was swept from office with the fewest number of seats in nearly a century.

Elected to Parliament in 2010, she positioned herself firmly on the right of the Tory party. She campaigned for Britain to remain in the 2016 referendum, saying, “I don’t want my daughters to grow up in a world where they need a visa or permit to work in Europe, or where they are hampered from growing a business because of extortionate call costs and barriers to trade. Every parent wants their children to grow up in a healthy environment with clean water, fresh air and thriving natural wonders. Being part of the EU helps protect these precious resources and spaces.”

After the result, she became an ardent Brexiteer. Today she talks of getting rid of all remaining EU regulations within 15 months, potentially causing “chaos”, according to lawyers, business bosses and union leaders.

Bees and fags

As Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Education from 2012, she announced a retrograde reform to A levels, scrapping modular exams and hugely increasing student stress by reintroducing the one-chance-only end of course exam.

She also had backward ideas on early learning. Her proposal to increase the number of children relative to adults in chidcare environments was widely criticised for lowering standards. It was ultimately abandoned.

As Environment Secretary from 2014, she approved the lifting of an EU ban on the use of two neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been shown to harm bees. She cuts government subsidies for solar panels on rural land on the nimbyish grounds that they were “a blight on the landscape”. In a free vote, she voted against government plans to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes.

Under Theresa May, she was appointed as Secretary of State for Justice, a decision which provoked the resignation of the Minister of State for Justice in protest. His criticism that she would be insufficiently robust in defending the independence of the judiciary against overbearing government ministers seemed to be vindicated when judges came under attack over the Gina Miller case for upholding the right of Parliament to trigger Article 50, rather than ministers. Lord Falconer, the former Lord Chancellor, called for her to be sacked from her job as her perceived inadequate response “signals to the judges that they have lost their constitutional protector.”

When judges were criticised in the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”, Truss failed to come to their defence. The Lord Chief Justice said her position was “constitutionally, absolutely wrong.”

As a backbencher, Truss had called for maths classes to be compulsory for everyone in full time education. Demoted to Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 2017, she now exasperated officials by asking them multiplication questions at random intervals. Many civil servants regarded her as rather mad and were astonished by her subsequent progress up the ladder. Party colleagues agree: she’s “very weird,” said one.

Unlawful arms sales

Truss supported Boris Johnson for the Conservative leadership in 2019 and was expected to be rewarded with a major economics brief, even Chancellor of the Exchequer. Johnson may have decided she would be too restrictive on public spending and instead made her Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade.

In September 2019, Truss said that the Department for International Trade had “inadvertently” twice allowed shipping of military supplies to Saudi Arabia. In fact, it occurred a third time and maybe more. This was in defiance of a ruling of the Court of Appeal, which had found that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in the war in Yemen were unlawful, the result of a judicial review brought by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. Human rights activists were outraged at the breach. Opposition MPs called on her to resign for breaking the law.

The following July she announced the lifting of the ban on exporting arms to Saudi Arabia, using the risible justification, “that there is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law.”

Amnesty International branded Truss as “deeply cynical” for arguing that apparent war crimes by Saudi forces in Yemen had been isolated incidents. As Labour Hub reported: “It is beyond doubt that the British government’s sickening supply of military aircraft, accompanied by state-of-the-art armaments and munitions, has directly contributed to the vast number of civilians killed – as well as the maiming of countless more who have survived the relentless bombardment.”

A month later, meetings Truss held with the right wing Institute of Economic Affairs were removed from the public record, raising concerns about integrity, transparency and honesty in public office. Truss claimed the meetings were “personal discussions”.

Truss’s so-called big achievement at Trade was the much-celebrated ‘historic’ trade deal with Japan. Yet this was in fact pretty much a copy of the existing trade deal the EU had with that country. It included a plan to sell cheese – a recurrent theme with Truss – to Japan, a country where nearly three-quarters of people are lactose intolerant.

Culture warrior

In December 2020, Truss entered the culture war, claiming that children in her class at school had been left unable to read or write because too much time was taken up learning about racism and sexism. Really? Her speech, which bizarrely attacked the ideas of Foucault and postmodernism, was branded as “bonkers” by opponents and quickly pulled from the government’s website.

Truss became an undistinguished Foreign Secretary last September. She called for a “closer trading and investment relationship” with autocratic, rights-abusing regimes in the Gulf and was denounced as “demented” by former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating for her remarks about Chinese military aggression in the Pacific.

All the extra maths she likes to fit into her schedule could have usefully been replaced with the odd geography lesson. In January, she talked of “supplying and offering extra support into our Baltic allies across the Black Sea” – which of course is 700 miles from the Baltic. She also confused two regions of Russia – Voronezh and Rostov – believing them to be in Ukraine, saying the U.K. “will never recognize Russian sovereignty over these regions.” Such statements are the stuff of how wars start.

In a TV interview, Truss was asked if she supported anyone volunteering to travel to Ukraine to help in its defence against the Russian invasion, and responded “absolutely”. She was later criticised by MPs who said that such action would be illegal under the Foreign Enlistment Act and was overruled by a spokesperson for Boris Johnson. Russian officials claimed its placing of its military on high alert had been in response to Truss’s off-message comment.

According to the Financial Times, Truss’s keynote speech on foreign policy last year, in which she talked of rebuilding the “muscle” of “Global Britain”, was described by one former UK ambassador as “the biggest load of drivel I’ve ever heard”. But she’s means it: she is committed to increasing military spending to 3% of GDP by 2030, higher even than Johnson’s promised level.

Unhappy Tories

Many senior Tories are said to be unhappy with Truss’s distancing herself from the Party’s record in office, despite having been in government herself for several years. Some see it as a ploy to win over a majority of the 200,000 or so Conservative members who will choose between her and Rishi Sunak in September. By dressing like Margaret Thatcher and promising a radical, if undeliverable, tax-cutting agenda in the style of Ronald Reagan, she is throwing red meat at the increasingly right wing Tory grassroots membership, with whom she is the favourite – although Tory voters more widely prefer her opponent, Rishi Sunak.

Keir Starmer is said to favour taking on Liz Truss at the next general election, believing her “wooden style” would make him look “less unexciting”. And there’s no doubt that she is notoriously gaffe-prone, from being unable to find her way out of her own press conference earlier this month to ranting about cheese at the Tory Party Conference a few years ago.

But there is also something dangerous, unpredictable – and like Johnson – narcissistic about Truss. The outgoing prime minister’s former advisor Dominic Cummings called her a “human hand-grenade” on account of the chaos she caused and claims she was the only minister he ever shouted at in Number Ten.

But Dominic Cummings enabled this type of politics of course. The Brexit referendum strategist unleashed a campaign that talked of taking back control from unaccountable elites, leading Michael Gove to famously quip that Britain had “had enough of experts”. Truss’s railing against “a consensus of the Treasury, of economists, of the Financial Times and other outlets peddling a particular type of economic policy” comes from the same playbook.

The Labour leader may want a mediocrity for Tory leader to make his own lacklustre performances look better. But whether the country can afford two years of a Truss premiership is an altogether more worrying prospect.

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018. His new book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.

Image: Liz Truss. Source: Author: Chris McAndrew, licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution 3.0 Unported license.

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