Britain’s New Prime Minister: The Leeds Girl Who Refuses to be Written Off
Elizabeth Mary “Liz” Truss arrived almost two hours late at Number 10 Downing Street on Tuesday to deliver her first remarks as the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister. She spoke for only six minutes, in a halting tone reminiscent of a high school Model U.N. debater. Her eyes darting between her notes and the cameras, she extolled “freedom” as a core British value and pledged to respond to the challenges of the energy crisis in order to create a Britain where everyone has a chance to succeed. The words might have seemed generic and hesitant, especially compared to the remarks delivered by her predecessor that morning as he left Number 10 for the last time. But through her actions, if not her words, and the very fact that she is now one of the most powerful leaders in the world, Truss has already proven that she is a force to be reckoned with.
If anyone is used to doubts, it is Liz Truss, who has been subjected to them her entire life. The lower middle-class girl from Leeds whose accent betrays both her state education and class background—unforgivable sins in the eyes of much of her party and the British media—was facing explicit mockery on the day she became Prime Minister. Efforts have been made to cast doubt on her ideological conservatism, with opponents and the media citing her teenage years as a Liberal Democrat who called for abolishing the monarchy while in college, or her opposition to Brexit in the 2016 referendum while serving under David Cameron.
At the same time, evidence of her intellectualism and conservative convictions has been ignored. Truss, after all, co-authored a book calling for a free-market revolution in British culture and governance in 2011 entitled Britannia Unchained. She has been a regular at the Heritage Foundation, a prominent U.S. conservative think tank. She was one of the first to arrest Britain’s drift toward Canada-style hate speech rules regarding gender identification, and has played a key role in killing an online “safety” bill that would have provided a framework for mass censorship.
All of these libertarian stands, as well as her support for a hardline toward the E.U. on Brexit after the referendum passed, were written off as pandering. How could a working-class girl truly believe in shrinking the state? Disbelief followed an interview where Truss not only admitted that the rich would receive more from her proposed tax cuts than the poor, but where she argued that they deserved to.
This has created a media consensus that Truss cannot possibly meet the challenges facing the United Kingdom or, consequently, last as Prime Minister for more than a short interval before either Boris returns or the opposition Labour Party sweeps into power. Polls have been used to create a narrative that a majority of Britons do not welcome her ascension. The economic crisis Britain faces is enormous; energy prices are set to nearly triple, the Pound has lost 18% of its value over the last year, and the country is facing strikes as well as disputes with the E.U.
The purpose of this media narrative seems to be convincing Truss to internalize the doubt and abandon her own policy and convictions. Once it became clear she was likely to win the Conservative leadership, a concerted campaign was launched to convince Truss that she could not afford to exclude her opponents from her future cabinet. Not only must she include them, the media said, but she must also adopt their policies and realize that her preferred views were “fantasy,” whether on Brexit, climate change, taxes, or unions. It was a concerted effort to pressure Truss into giving up power before she even assumed it.
The greatest indication that the media consensus may be wrong about Liz Truss lies not in her speech this week, but in the government she formed and the policies she has announced. Rather than submitting to the demands of the media and doubters, Truss has learned from the experience of Theresa May that the so-called “moderates,” “grandees,” and “media” do not have her interests at heart. They are a permanent class, and her presence offends them because she has displaced their chosen candidate. Even if she were to adopt their preferred policies, they would merely use that as a stopgap to isolate her from her supporters and then replace her with one of their own.
The cabinet Truss has formed is hers alone. It is right-wing, yes, perhaps one of the most right-wing in history. Nadhim Zahawi, the former Chancellor turned Minister for Equalities, spent his short-lived campaign for leader arguing for the need to imitate Florida in reigning in far-left gender ideology masquerading as sex-ed in schools. His appointment is evidence Truss rejects the media conviction that these issues were merely posturing. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new Business Secretary who will also have responsibility for energy policy, is a well-known skeptic of green energy, which prompted multiple Conservative MPs to refuse to serve under him to oversee efforts to fight climate change. Rather than give in to blackmail, Truss assigned the climate change portfolio to Rees-Mogg as well. The new Northern Ireland Secretary launched an investigation into whether universities were discriminating against pro-Brexit students in 2017, and his deputy was one of the leading pro-Brexit voices in the House of Commons. The new Home Secretary, in charge of immigration and law enforcement, is Suella Braverman, who as Attorney General was subject to efforts to discipline her because she dared to order civil service lawyers to stop coming up with reasons why government proposals were illegal and instead produce suggestions to carry them out legally. She also criticized a “rights culture” gone amok.
But not every right-winger has made it in the cabinet. Lord David Frost, who under Boris Johnson secured Britain’s exit deal from the E.U. in 2019, and who has developed a following on both sides of the Atlantic, will not be joining. Frost had played a role in kneecapping Truss’ rivals, and endorsed her, but evidently expected the post of Foreign Secretary. When he was denied it, he rejected two other job offers and Truss left him with nothing. Iain Duncan Smith, who led the party between 2001 and 2003 and was an outspoken right-wing backer, also received nothing after turning down an initial role. Kemi Badenoch and Penny Mordaunt, Truss’ rivals, neither of whom have administrative experience, were given take-it-or-leave-it offers for Trade and Leader of the House of Commons. Truss’ position was clear: she wanted people who could run departments running them. Political importance and name recognition in the media were not qualifications. After the experiences of former Prime Ministers Cameron, May, and Johnson, Truss was not interested in ministers who thought they could make demands of a Prime Minister.
By contrast, Truss’ inner core is perhaps more united than any British cabinet in decades. The Chancellor of Exchequer, the number two role in charge of the economy, went to Kwarsi Kwartang, Truss’ longtime friend and co-author of Britannia Unchained. Truss defied those who suggested the appointment would reawaken defamatory rumors about their relationship to appoint her trusted friend as the first Economics Ph.D. to hold the role, not to mention the first black individual.
The reason for Truss’ emphasis on a cohesive team was made clear by her response to the economic and energy crisis. She shocked both critics and allies by going big, announcing a plan to freeze household energy prices at their current levels for 18 months. This is more ambitious than the policy proposed by the opposition Labour Party, and its possible £100bn price tag ($116bn or, adjusted for GDP, $1.1 trillion).
The package must have been painful for free-marketeers such as Truss, Kwartang, and Rees-Mogg, but the political and economic logic was clear. Keynes may not have been right about economics, but politically, in the long-run, politicians who do not fix the economy are dead. Truss faced a choice between trying to contain inflation by denying relief to millions who were seeing a 400% increase in their bills since 2020, or risking further inflation by relieving them. Whatever the economic merits of the former approach, it could only work if both the government stuck to it in the face of overwhelming public unrest and markets were convinced it would work. Evidently concluding that this was not possible, it then became a question of how much relief to offer. Freezing prices might cost more than targeted relief, but it was simple to explain who was covered and to what degree, which would restore confidence and be easy to implement.
It was an approach that could only have been attempted by a coherent team. A disloyal and self-serving cabinet would have seen individuals leak their “principled opposition,” knowing they could nevertheless benefit from it passing over their objections. Instead, Rees-Mogg fronted the plan.
The approach is already paying dividends. A financial and media consensus that such a plan was impossible and mad has given way in less than 24 hours to a narrative that the plan is brilliant and likely to limit the impact of a depression. Pessimism, which had been near total, has given way to optimism.
This should be an early warning that preconceptions about Liz Truss as a temporary figure may be misplaced. Perhaps she will be. But she has not worked her way to the top simply to give it all up. If Johnson, the Labour Party, or rival Conservatives wish to take Liz Truss down, they will have to work. The Leeds girl is giving every indication she won’t go down without a fight.