There’s an explosion of interest in the Westminster Village about Liz Truss’ future – and her popularity with Tory activists. Where has everyone been?
She’s topped ConservativeHome’s Cabinet League Table for the last ten months in a row. And we see no reason as we write why she shouldn’t carry on doing so for the time being. Once a Minister starts doing well in the table, it takes a lot to make them fall from grace – as her predecessor discovered after staying on holiday during the recent Afghanistan crisis.
When we next get round to our Next Tory Leader survey, Truss will be in it and will surely do very well. There are three main reasons for her present happy condition, which collectively shed light on where we are now.
First, it is hard to mess up while leading the most pro-Brexit government department at the start of our new journey as an independent country. Almost by definition, the Department for International Trade, for whose existence we must thank the Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill duopoly during the first Theresa May era, is orientated not only towards Europe but beyond it to the wider world.
It thus provided a ladder that allowed Truss to escape her past as a Remainer during the EU referendum, if rather a quiet one. In the course of her time at the department, she clinched some 60 rollover trade deals.
The residue of those Remainers insist that it’s easy to reaffirm what already exists. They didn’t always say so at the time. The People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum predicted that “the UK is years away from signing any trade deals with third-party countries… [and] we will be losing access to the EU’s trade deals”.
Furthermore, much of the department’s business takes place behind closed doors, a lot of it a long way away, and those factors combine to frustrate the leaks and scoops that slow or halt the progress of rising Ministers.
Truss has never been slow to advertise her work (what competent politician is?), and Twitter news of her progress provided good news during post-election bad times, from which she has gained. Trade Ministers don’t have to front up potentially difficult press conferences on Covid.
The second reason is that there’s more to Truss than time, place and chance, as she proved in her parallel brief, equalities. She hasn’t gone as far in the brief as we would have liked.
Why does a Conservative Government with a majority of 80 persist with a New Labour dogma that implies equality of outcome? This site favours scrapping the Equality Commission altogether and replacing it with an Opportunities Commission, focused on equality of opportunity, or as near to it as one can get in the real world.
Truss hasn’t taken such a radical course, but her handling of the brief has been deft. Consider a decision from her time at International Trade, during which she crafted a balanced approach to trans.
Or, as she put it, “making sure that transgender adults are free to live their lives as they wish without fear of persecution, whilst maintaining the proper checks and balances in the system”. In particular, Truss stressed the protection of same sex spaces and against trans self-definition.
Or look at a big appointment in these early days at the Foreign Office – namely, the recent appointment of Katharine Birbalsingh, the founder of Michaela Free School in London, as Chair of the Social Mobility Commission (another bit of the New Labour inheritance).
Birbalsingh is an ecletic thinker who may surprise Government loyalists in the post, and who has no real experience of navigating Whitehall bureacracies. But the appointment of a teacher who has actually delivered more social mobility, rather than merely opined about it, is a bold and inspiring choice.
Downing Street will have had a hand in the Birbalsingh appointment, and parts of it will have been supportive over trans policy. Over at the Policy Unit, Munira Mirza has long had an interest in culture clashes.
But not all of those at Johnson’s Tudor court, as we can’t help but think of it, take the same view. Truss has urged employers to pull out of Stonewall’s employment scheme. Carrie Johnson spoke at a Party Conference reception co-hosted by the organisation. These are not quiet waters to navigate.
The key point is that Truss, in doing so, has a mind of her own. Perhaps nurture is responsible: she’s the child of academics, and so grew up at home with debate and dispute. Perhaps it’s nature, since she turned away from their left-wing milieu. Or, as ever, both.
The Foreign Secretary is unusual among politicians in having a dash of vulgarity (“pork markets“!) while always thinking from first principles. Both come in very useful.
As Andrew Gimson pointed out on this site last week, she has the air of not taking everything, including herself, too seriously, while simultaneously pursuing a set of free market, liberal, almost liberarian beliefs. If you are not going to give trans campaigners everything they want, it helps to get out and about on the dance floor at a gay nightclub in Manchester, at least without looking out of place.
Truss’s belief in individual freedom is indissolubly linked to her support for tax cuts. Which leads us to the third reason for her popularity among Tory activists.
Put simply, there is always a fan base on the right for prioritising these above spending control. The Foreign Secretary has pushed in Cabinet for borrowing to take the strain. Now, this isn’t necessarily wrong. As recently as May, we wrote that the Prime Minister should learn from Ronald Reagan, because the deficit is “big enough to look after itself”.
But spring was one thing and autumn is another. As the world begins to move out of the pandemic, fingers crossed, shortages are bringing inflation with them – and, potentially, interest rate rises with them: a boon for savers, but a curse for business – and jobs.
Urging tax cuts first is one thing when you’re not in the Treasury but another when you are. And it’s Rishi Sunak, another potential successor to Johnson, who has been left holding the baby as the music stops. We hope that our mixed metaphor conveys a flavour of his plight. It may be significant that Kwasi Kwarteng, currently at odds with the Chancellor, is a Truss ally.
As the Spending Review approaches and difficult decisions pile up, the Foreign Secretary will have opportunities discreetly to distance herself from Sunak (a former Leaver – as he chose to remind us all during his Party Conference speech).
As we say, Truss is a convinced tax cutter. But there is a dash of mutual exploitation here. The Foreign Secretary knows that she is being played off by the Tax Cuts First school against the Chancellor. They know that she knows. And she knows that they know that she knows. Sometimes in politics, as so often elsewhere, it’s hard to know who is exploiting whom.