Out of the Blue: The inside story of the rise and rapid fall of Liz Truss by Harry Cole and James Heale
The Conservative Party has thrived for almost two centuries in part because it has often put itself in the hands of gifted outsiders.
To the confusion of its opponents, who yearn to dismiss it as stupid, reactionary, snobbish, sexist and racist, its greatest leaders have included Benjamin Disraeli, the first Prime Minister of Jewish descent, and Margaret Thatcher, the first woman.
So Liz Truss’s background as a Liberal Democrat activist who had called for the abolition of the monarchy by no means precluded a career in Conservative politics.
It is true that attempts were made at various stages to stop her. Harry Cole and James Heale give an enjoyable account of the attempt to overturn her selection in 2009 as the Tory candidate in South West Norfolk, by a group of local members who maintained that at the selection meeting she should have told them of her affair some years earlier with a Tory MP, Mark Field.
These rustic rebels, led by Sir Jeremy Bagge, a former High Sheriff of Norfolk who pointed out that his family had lived in the county since 800 AD, became known as “the Turnip Taliban”, a term which may have been invented for them by Simon Walters, of The Mail on Sunday, and which prompted one of them to complain: “We’re used to carrot-crunchers, but Turnip Taliban is offensive.”
Cole works for The Sun, Heale for The Spectator, and they describe with relish how “chief mischief-maker Christopher Hope” of The Daily Telegraph, “the poison-penned Sam Coates of The Times” and “Michael Crick, the fearsome Newsnight hound”, were among the pack of “Fleet Street’s finest political troublemakers” who descended on the Norfolk town of Swaffham for the decisive vote of local Conservative Party members.
But the party leader, David Cameron, had swung the party machine behind Truss, Tim Montgomerie, the Editor of ConHome, backed her too, so did Daniel Hannan and Iain Dale, and she won the vote by the crushing margin of 132 to 37.
It had taken Truss a long time to gain adoption in a safe seat: as these authors remind us, she had been defeated along the way by among others David Gauke, Malcolm Rifkind, Michael Gove and Charles Walker.
At the selection for Surrey Heath, won by Gove, she has recalled that Jacob Rees-Mogg “slightly unnerved” her by bringing along a copy of The House at Pooh Corner, which made her think, “Where have I gone wrong?”
Like the others just named, she had demonstrated the first quality needed to make one’s way in politics, which is persistence.
Things quite often went wrong for Truss, but she never stopped fighting her corner. She provided good copy for the press, to which she often leaked stuff.
On her upward ministerial path, which led via Education, the Environment, Justice, the Treasury, Trade and the Foreign Office to Number Ten, she often antagonised her colleagues, but never suffered a fatal blow.
According to these authors, she soon proved “a hit on Fleet Street”. While Chief Secretary at the Treasury – a demotion after a disastrous spell as Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, during which she infuriated the judges by failing to defend them after The Daily Mail denounced them as “Enemies of the People” – she started to put out “all kinds of zany photos” on her Instagram account.
On foreign trips, which became frequent when she went to Trade, every other aspect of the programme might be disrupted in order to get, for example, “the final snap of Truss on a British-made Brompton bike with a Union flag umbrella in a car park under Sydney Harbour Bridge, with the Opera House looming large”.
These pictures certainly helped to promote her, and may also have done something for British exports. She was mocked, but attracted more attention than a modest, well-behaved minister would have done.
In her first five months as Foreign Secretary, more than 700 pictures of Truss were uploaded on the Government’s official Flickr account: one for every five hours in the job, these authors point out.
At words, she was less good. Often she sounded cloth-eared. This book, which is itself rather clumsily written, recounts many speeches which did not come off well, and few if any which might serve as models for the aspiring orator.
She was not an easy person to contradict, and on the whole she surrounded herself with aides who did not contradict her. The case against whatever she thought was a good idea was seldom made.
Margaret Thatcher wanted to test proposals before they were implemented; to have the necessary argument. This account contains no evidence that Truss did.
Can it be, one wonders, that Truss lacked the intellectual confidence, or perhaps the intellectual humility, to have that kind of argument? Her often aggressive manner suggests a kind of insecurity.
Boris Johnson sent her to the Foreign Office in September 2021 so she could serve as a counter-weight to Rishi Sunak, at the Treasury, who was seen as his heir apparent.
The authors remark that at this point, “fresh off the boost of the vaccine rollout”, senior Tories openly discussed the prospect of another ten years in power for Johnson.
Instead from this point onwards it all went wrong for him, a decline and fall I have recently sought to describe, and on the evening of Tuesday 5 July 2020 – how fresh these events still are – Sajid Javid resigned as Health Secretary and Sunak, a few minutes later, as Chancellor.
Cole and Heale report the great anxiety in Truss’s circle that Johnson would ask her to take over as Chancellor: if she accepted, she would be bound to him and go down with the ship, while if she refused, she would open herself to the charge of rank disloyalty.
To her relief, Nadhim Zahawi was made the new Chancellor and she was able to fly to a G20 meeting in Bali, which is where she was on Thursday morning when Johnson admitted defeat.
She flew back and assembled a handful of advisers in her house in Greenwich, where they realised they had none of the elements, including money, MPs, video, website and communications, needed for a leadership campaign – “a policy team was set up in Truss’s daughter’s bedroom”.
They had no policy, but needed to start outlining one to publish in a comment piece for The Telegraph on Monday, so “the team cooked up a policy vision over an 18-hour day”.
This account confirms how unprepared Truss was to become Prime Minister. She could without difficulty outflank Sunak on tax, for he regarded with moral seriousness the need for sound money.
She was in favour of unfunded tax cuts, and so was her friend and Greenwich neighbour Kwasi Kwarteng, but they did not reveal how bold they intended to be, nor did anyone in their circle, gathered now at Chevening, seek to make any kind of rigorous counter-argument.
Dominic Raab put his name to a piece in The Times which warned that Truss’s tax plans were an “electoral suicide note”, while Gove said the Truss campaign had been a “holiday from reality”.
More MPs backed Sunak than Truss, but having managed to make it to the final two, among the membership she won by 57 to 43 per cent. She was in.
After 44 days, she was out again. The unfunded tax cuts precipitated a run on the pound, rising interest rates and a general loss of confidence in Truss.
Nor could she find the words, in the Commons and at press conferences, to inspire her MPs and stand up for herself. The authors of this book not unnaturally supposed they would be recounting only her rise.
They have by accident demonstrated that the talents needed to become Prime Minister are not necessarily those required to do the job.