Harold Macmillan resigned the Govenment whip during the 1930s. Boris Johnson flirted with an SDP-flavoured group at Oxford. And Winston Churchill was a member of the Liberal Party for some 20 years, and it was as a Liberal that he served as in his main Cabinet posts other than as Chancellor.
But no Tory leader in modern times has been a member of another political party before joining the Conservatives. One has to go back to the late Victorian period, when party alliegances were much looser, to find a Party leader who had a pre-Tory history: Benjamin Disraeli, who began his career as a radical.
If Liz Truss wins the Conservative leadership, she will break this political mould. At Oxford University, she was President of the University’s Liberal Democrats and a fully-fledged Liberal Democrat student politician to boot – as a member of the party’s national executive committee of Liberal Democrat Youth and Students.
Truss has been a Tory member for 25 years, joining after she entered the world of work, and has served as an Association Chairman and a local councillor. This long marination in the Party may explain why she has connected better in this contest with activists so far than has Rishi Sunak.
All the same, there must be a part of her that remains the Leeds girl at Oxford, who still sees the Conservatives with an outsider’s eye. Especially since the origins of her worldview are unusually explicit: she is at heart an economic and social liberal – a libertarian, if you like.
“This generation are #Uber-riding -ing #Deliveroo-eating #freedomfighters,” she declared on Twitter in 2018. “Every generation wants their own version of #freedom – freedom to shape their own lives. This is about #choice #destiny.” Truss was quoting from her speech at the launch of Freer, then a new think tank associated with the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Seeing the Party as a bit of a stranger, as Disraeli will have done, strikes me as having distinct upsides. A touch of detachment, emotional distance, a stranger’s eye for foibles and weaknesses: all these can come in useful for a politician. Some will say that Truss’s opponent in this contest, Rishi Sunak, is more of a Tory outsider, given his Indian origins and Hindu faith.
Each to his own, but I can’t quite see it that way. The former Chancellor is a man at home with conventional wisdom: his attachment to the Treasury’s over tax explains his current difficulties in this election. Truss, by contrast, is not. The key to her character strikes me as, in her own words, that “I don’t like to be told what to do”.
So far, so linear. We have someone who, first, entered the Party having been a member of another; then, second, made her way within it as a woman when male leadership was more common; and who, third, has individualist reflexes that seem to spring from character as well as ideology.
But at this point, Truss veers off unexpectedly. You might expect a politician with such deeply founded instincts to stick to them. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case, if one looks at her past and present. Consider a key example from this campaign: housing.
As Robert Colvile reminded his readers last weekend in the Sunday Times, Truss prepared the way for a leadership bid in 2019, stressing the need for boldness. And she cited in a Daily Mail interview an as an example “her support for building on the Green Belt – a sacred cow for many older shire Tories, but less taboo for younger voters struggling to afford their first homes”.
“We need to build a million homes on the London Green Belt near railway stations, and around other growing cities, specifically to allow the under 40s to be able to own their homes. We should allow villages to expand by four or five houses a year without having to go through the planning system, so people can afford to live locally,” she said.
As Robert pointed out and as Public First’s campaign summaries confirm, Truss is no longer terrifying well-off, older, southern-dwelling Tory activists with talk of village expansion without planning permission (let alone a million Green Belt homes). Instead, she is stressing local control and the scrapping of central targets.
I’m not suggesting that Truss’s campaign is a giant U-turn, or that none of her ideas have merit. Indeed, some of them are very good – usually those in policy areas of which she has Ministerial experience; see her proposal for evening out the imbalance between subsidised degree courses and vocational training, for example.
But it’s fair to say that for a committed ideologue she has proved herself remarkably flexible. The former Liberal Democrat is currently the darling of the Conservative right (in the absence from the election of Kemi Badenoch). The one-time Remainer is outsmarting an original Leaver, Sunak.
The veteran occupant of five Cabinet positions – Environment Secretary, Justice Secretary, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Trade Secretary and Foreign Secretary – is somehow the new thing in town. You don’t get to negotiate all this as a politician without a talent for adaptation and, in Truss’s case, an unquenchable optimism.
Friends and foes alike agree that she is as I’ve always found her – quirky, flirtatious, argumentative, mildly sadistic, joshing, lively, upbeat. With her friends, I would add: intelligent, thoughtful. Her foes claim she isn’t always across the detail, has to be talked down from unsustainable positions, and is fundamentally unserious.
To which I say that if Truss doesn’t take things too seriously, then at least those things also include herself, too: not being able to laugh at yourself is more common among male politicians than female ones, at least in my experience. But she would need more than a sense of humour to tackle what’s coming: soaring prices, strikes, possible recession, the Protocol, power cuts (maybe).
A structural weakness in Truss’s campaign is that she is telling party members what they want to hear. And at some point very soon indeed, if she wins, she will have to make hard choices, having won the support of less than a third of the Party’s MPs. Her former leadership rivals may be rushing to endorse her, but many of the MPs who voted for them haven’t done likewise.
Would she become the prisoner of the European Research Group, so adding to her list of troubles a potential trade war with the EU? Would she really send John Redwood to the Treasury, David Frost to the Foreign Office and Iain Duncan Smith to the Cabinet Office (say)?
Or would she aim instead for a Lincolnesque “team of rivals”? But how practicable would it be for her suddenly to seek support from the wing of the Party that didn’t vote for her in the first place? What of Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch waiting in the wings?
Truss is most likely to try to steer a middle course, relying on her early Cabinet backers for support: Therese Coffey, Simon Clarke and Kwasi Kwarteng. Not all of those look like possible Party Chairmen and none of them like potential Chief Whips – key positions for which loyalty is required.
Maybe Truss’ proposed combination of tax cuts, a revised Bank mandate and some higher spending would boost growth. But over what timeframe? What happens if rates rise and recession comes? What would happen to levelling up? Sunak is a Steady Eddie: you know what you’re getting. By contrast, I can’t work out whether Truss would be a disaster, a triumph or in between.
Tomorrow: Sunak – “an investor not an entrepreneur”.