Why Liz Truss has the edge in the leadership race

Her decision to take on Sunak's tax plans has boosted her popularity

Britain Politics Liz Truss | AP

For many members of the Truss family, the ongoing churn in British politics must have come as a bittersweet experience. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, inarguably the most famous member of the family, is just a heartbeat away from becoming the leader of the Conservative Party and the next prime minister of the United Kingdom. But her uncle Richard, an 80-year-old retired priest, told The Times that the family had liberalism in its blood and that it must still be in his niece’s blood as well. Her father, John Kenneth Truss, a mathematics professor at the University of Leeds, has not been able to comprehend his daughter’s transformation into a Tory. For a while, he even thought that she could be a “sleeper working from inside to overthrow the Conservative regime”.

Truss’s willingness to stand up to Sunak over economic policy had been crucial in establishing her as the favourite candidate of the Tory base.
As foreign secretary, Truss gave Johnson complete support in shaping Britain’s aggressive response towards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Mary Elizabeth Truss was born in Oxford on July 26, 1975, to John and Priscilla, who worked as a nurse and a teacher. Her parents—both committed Labour supporters—often took her to political demonstrations, especially against the policies of prime minister Margaret Thatcher. When Truss was four, the family moved to Paisley, near Glasgow. She can still recall one particular anti-Thatcher slogan from those days. “It was in Scottish, so it was ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, oot, oot, oot’,” she told the BBC, an ironic slogan for a future Tory PM-hopeful.

The family moved to Leeds after a while and Truss continued her education at Roundhay, a state-funded comprehensive school. Truss returned to Oxford in 1993 to attend Merton College, where she read philosophy, politics and economics, the favourite degree of aspiring politicians. Her political philosophy had undergone a transformation by then. She had become a Liberal Democrat and was elected president of the party’s student wing at the university. After graduating from Oxford, Truss made a career-defining political shift by joining the Conservative Party. She later told her friends that a trip to eastern Europe after the disintegration of the Soviet Union was a key factor behind the decision.

Truss married Hugh O’Leary, an accountant and a fellow Tory, in 2000. Her plunge into active politics came a year later as she contested and lost the general elections. Despite another loss in 2005, she persevered and resurrected her career with the support of the new Tory leader David Cameron. Truss entered the House of Commons in 2010 representing the rural South West Norfolk seat. She had nearly lost the chance to contest when a group of local Tories wanted to dump her following news that she had an affair with Mark Field, an MP assigned to mentor her. While Field’s marriage collapsed, O’Leary stood by Truss, and so did Cameron, which saved her career.

Just over four years after becoming an MP, Truss was inducted into the cabinet in 2014. After Cameron’s exit following the Brexit referendum fiasco, new prime minister Theresa May named her lord chancellor. Truss was the first woman in the history of the UK to head the justice ministry. But after a disastrous stint, May demoted her as number two in the treasury, a move which prompted observers to pen her political obituary. However, Truss’s uncanny knack of backing the winner ensured that when Boris Johnson became prime minister in 2019, she was back in the cabinet as international trade secretary. Her high-voltage performance was rewarded with a promotion to the foreign office last September after Dominic Raab was shunted out for his disastrous handling of Afghanistan.

A few months before Truss took charge as foreign secretary, a YouGov poll showed her languishing at 42nd position in the list of the most famous Conservative politicians, while Sunak was among the top ten. A year later, however, she has become the hot favourite to succeed Johnson. Although she came second after Sunak in the initial round of the Tory poll of MPs, she has her finger on the pulse of the party cadre, which is evident from the commanding lead she has over Sunak.

Making a move: Truss boards RAF Voyager at London’s Stansted Airport ahead of a visit to the US. Her tenure as foreign secretary has been marked by proactive diplomatic initiatives | Getty Images Making a move: Truss boards RAF Voyager at London’s Stansted Airport ahead of a visit to the US. Her tenure as foreign secretary has been marked by proactive diplomatic initiatives | Getty Images

Truss’s transformation perhaps started with Brexit. An original “remainer”, she even wrote an op-ed in The Sun arguing that leaving the European Union would be a triple tragedy involving more rules, more forms and more delays. But once Brexit was confirmed, Truss made a quick u-turn and clarified that she opposed Brexit only out of loyalty towards Cameron.

Leaving the EU, in Truss’s view, offered an opportunity to shake up the way things worked in the UK. And she led by example. “She made a lot of her job as international trade secretary, delivering post-Brexit trade deals, even if most were carbon copies of what the UK had as a member of the EU,” said Jill Rutter, senior research fellow at UK in a Changing Europe. It gave her an opportunity to click slick photographs from foreign locations as the new ambassador for “Global Britain”. Truss, in fact, got so obsessed with sharing her success stories on Instagram that her staff started joking that they worked at the department for Instagramming Truss. For the Tory rank and file, however, she was the perfect deal-maker who could stand up to the the world, demonstrating that Brexit was indeed a success.

As foreign secretary, Truss gave Johnson complete support in shaping Britain’s aggressive response towards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She hinted that the UK supported pushing Russia out of not just territories captured recently, but also from Crimea. She openly backed British citizens fighting alongside Ukrainian forces. She was also successful in securing the release of two British citizens imprisoned in Iran for the past six years.

Truss’s impeccable reading of the Tory mood came to the fore when she unflinchingly took on Sunak’s unpopular tax plans. She has pledged to overturn the proposed hike in corporation tax and abolish the increase in national insurance contributions. She has also promised to postpone the proposed green levy on energy bills. The Truss team believes that her willingness to stand up to Sunak over economic policy had been crucial in establishing herself as the favourite candidate of the party base.

Another factor which could turn out to be crucial for Truss is her decision to remain publicly loyal to Johnson, unlike Sunak who chose to resign from the cabinet. As a result, she has earned the complete support of the Johnson camp, despite the fact that Truss herself had wined and dined Tory MPs in meetings dubbed by the media as “fizz with Liz”, in an attempt to canvass their support. Tory voters who believe that Sunak was responsible for Johnson’s downfall are likely to flock to her.

Finally, Truss has been priming herself to be Thatcher’s successor, as the “Iron Lady” remains the gold standard for Conservatives of all hues and cries. Truss, like Thatcher, is a northerner, never attended private schools and is an avowed champion of free markets. While on a visit to Russia in February, Truss was seen wearing a round fur hat that looked just like the one worn by Thatcher at a NATO training event nearly four decades ago. Last November, she was pictured atop a tank in Estonia, reminding voters of another iconic Thatcher image. And during one of the early leadership debates, she was seen wearing a pussy-bow blouse, a style popularised by Thatcher.

The Truss campaign is being run from the famous Westminster townhouse of Tory peer Greville Howard, which used to be the Johnson campaign headquarters back in 2019. Truss must be hoping that it would bring her luck, but beating Sunak may not be an easy task. “Truss is willing to overclaim and has a rather simplistic approach to policy making,” said Rutter. “She does nothing to suggest that she would restore the ethical standards in government whose debasement ultimately brought down Johnson.” Multiple surveys indicate that the most important concern of party members while choosing a new leader is the ability to win the general elections, where Sunak holds a clear edge. Observers point out that if Sunak manages to narrow Truss’s lead in opinion polls over the next fortnight, he will have the momentum going into the final stretch.

During her initial days as minister, civil servants used to call Truss “the human hand-grenade”, a nickname later adopted by Johnson. A source close to him told The Guardian that it was not always intended as a praise. “Truss does tend to blow things up. Anything passed by her needed to be handled with care,” said the source. Her team would be hoping that the grenade doesn’t go off, at least till September 5, when the Tories unveil their new leader.