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Liz Truss (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Liz Truss (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

PoliticsSeptember 6, 2022

Who is Liz Truss? A beginner’s guide to the new UK prime minister

Liz Truss (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Liz Truss (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Your two-minute introduction to the woman Tories have installed at No 10. Plus: What does it mean for New Zealand?

The fever dream of Boris Johnson at Downing Street has at last come to an end with the announcement shortly before midnight (NZ time) that Liz Truss will be the leader of the governing Conservative Party, and so the prime minister. The member of parliament for South West Norfolk prevailed over Rishi Sunak after winning just over 57% of Conservative Party members’ votes (the lowest margin of the four Conservative leaders to be elected by the full membership). She will now travel to Balmoral in Scotland to be officially appointed PM by the Queen, who isn’t well enough to travel (or just really doesn’t fancy it) to Buckingham Palace.

Truss, whom Jacinda Ardern last night called “a close friend of New Zealand”, will be the 15th prime minister to share a lovely cup of tea with Elizabeth II. 

In a short acceptance speech, Truss paid tribute to Johnson, “admired from Kyiv to Carlisle”, prompting an awkward pause before the audience lurched into applause. She praised the Tories as “the greatest political party on Earth. And she pledged her government would deliver. “We will deliver,” she said, adding: “We will deliver. We will deliver.”

Who is Liz Truss? What is she about? Where did she come from? And just how omni is the shambles she inherits? Please take a seat.

She’s been on a political journey

Born in 1975, Truss was born into a household that was, she’s said, to the left of Labour. Unlike the recent procession of super-posho Eton-educated Conservative leaders, Truss went to state school in Leeds. (Whether she subsequently traduced that school’s reputation is another question.) 

Truss initially gravitated to the Liberal Democrats. Footage circulated during the campaign of a 19-year-old Truss at a Lib Dems party conference, declaring, among other things – gasp – that the monarchy should be abolished. But upon returning to Oxford, she had a change of heart, and signed up with the Tories. After graduating, she worked as an accountant, before diving into the world of think-tanks and politics. After a couple of unsuccessful runs, she won South West Norfolk in 2010. In 2014, she became Britain’s youngest ever woman cabinet minister. She was loyal to Boris Johnson to the end – unlike Sunak, whose resignation from cabinet was a critical domino in the mega-resignation that made his premiership untenable. 

From Remainer to Brexiteer

She opposed Brexit, arguing it was “in Britain’s economic interest” to remain in the EU. 

After Team Brexit won the referendum she switched sides, saying: “ I voted to remain because I was concerned about the economy but what we’ve seen since the Brexit vote is our economy has done well.”

She’s all about the tax cuts

Despite fears of creating extra inflationary pressure and forcing the country into further debt, Truss leaned hard on the tax-cut button in her campaign for party members’ affections. Sunak, a former chancellor, said he too wanted tax cuts but to introduce them now would be madness, and he’d rather lose than “win on a false promise”. He lost.

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss at the final Conservative Party Hustings event at Wembley Arena on August 31. (Photo: Susannah Ireland/AFP via Getty Images)

She swerved tough interviews

Last week Truss cancelled a scheduled long-form interview with the BBC’s Nick Robinson at the 11th hour, presumably calculating that, with a healthy lead in the race, she had more to lose than gain. Sunak fronted for many more media appearances than his rival.

She strived to channel Thatcher

At moments in the run-off it looked like the candidates were competing to summon the spirit of Conservative hero Margaret Thatcher. Truss took the opportunity, some thought, to emulate her in both appearance and rhetoric. Perhaps conscious of that, Sunak penned an op-ed in the Telegraph headlined, “I will be the heir to Margaret Thatcher”, which used the words Thatcher and Thatcherite approximately a thousand times.  

Her in-tray is groaning

After the debacle of the last months of Johnson, and a governing apparatus left withering on the Partygate vine, Truss has her work cut out for her. The economic headwinds are massive: the cost of living crisis confronted in Britain makes New Zealand’s own seem a breeze, especially when you lump upon it a heaving energy crisis, with some businesses complaining surging power bills are making life harder than it was during Covid. Truss’s plan to deal with that is to issue a plan, within seven days. 

There are other challenges: a National Health Service mired in crisis, the ongoing war in Ukraine, and dealing with the fallout of Brexit. Closer to home, there’s the parliamentary Conservative Party itself, which remains riven by division.

She needs to win over a sceptical public

Polling by YouGov published this week suggested only 12% of Britons think Truss will be a great or good prime minister. More than half expect her to be poor (17%) or terrible (35%).

Goodbye to Boris

Or is it? He’s deep in debt and already there’s a bidding war for a newspaper column. Five years ago, the Daily Telegraph used to pay him half a million New Zealand dollars a year for a weekly bit; it will be more now, but they will want bang for their buck, and that bang is unlikely to do much to repair those divisions mentioned above.

There will also be books, and speeches, and let’s not forget that simmering – sorry, violently boiling – resentment at colleagues he considers blethering turncoats and ingrates for failing to back him despite the fact he was bad at his job, a serial liar and leading them rapidly into disaster. “I won those fuckers the election,” is his position on the matter, reportedly. And there’s some suggestion he might seriously think he has another shot at the top job. Good luck calming that human storm, Liz.

Boris Johnson (Photo: Eddie Mulholland – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

A prime minister picked by a small group

After Johnson was finally – finally – persuaded to go, the contest was whittled by Tory MPs down to two, with Sunak winning more colleagues’ votes than did Truss. A total of 172,437 members voted. That’s roughly a quarter of one per cent of the British population. And it’s hardly a cross-section of the population: an estimated 97% are white, and they tend to be older, richer, and more male.

She might want a fresh mandate

Given the above, Team Truss will have half an eye on calling an early election in the cause of securing a fresh mandate. That comes with considerable risk, given Labour has built a consistent lead in the polls. But Keir Starmer has hardly lifted the roof as opposition leader, and Truss will hope for a bump. Critics of Starmer say – and Truss will hope it’s true – that Labour should be doing a whole lot better after the disgraces of Boris, an unedifying, scrappy contest to succeed him, and a general sense of teetering on full-blown economic crisis. 

Whether she goes to the polls early or waits till 2024, to win would mean a fifth consecutive victory – something no party has achieved before in Britain. 

What does PM Truss mean for New Zealand?

Truss for the most part represents a continuation of the political direction of travel set by Boris Johnson, so there is unlikely to be anything major to grapple with. As secretary of international trade, Liz Truss joined David Parker in announcing and trumpeting the UK-NZ free trade agreement, so the links there are solid.

Jacinda Ardern and Truss have not met, but there may be an opportunity for that this month in New York. Ardern announced yesterday that she would be travelling to the UN General Assembly and according to UK reports, Truss plans to do the same. 

In a statement issued just a few minutes after Truss’s victory, Ardern said: “Liz Truss has been a close friend of New Zealand. She has been a staunch supporter of the UK’s ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific and played a central role in advancing our historic free trade agreement. We are looking forward to working closely with Prime Minister Truss and her Cabinet to progress a range of shared interests, including: ratification of the NZUK FTA, implementing the extension to the youth mobility scheme, climate change, the Pacific, and supporting Ukraine.”

She added: “I am looking forward to meeting Prime Minister Truss and building on the strong relationship between New Zealand and the UK. I know a range of my Cabinet colleagues are hoping to meet with their new British counterparts soon as well.”

One another bit of good news in the cause of UK-NZ comity: there is no evidence of any awkward pre-prime-ministerial tweets in Ardern’s cupboard. 

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