New Prime Minister: How Johnson Loyalist Liz Truss Landed the Top Job in British Politics


She is only the third woman in history to become British Prime Minister, following in the footsteps of her Conservative predecessors Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May. Who is 47-year-old Liz Truss and how did she manage to overtake her rival Rishi Sunak in the race to succeed Boris Johnson? TBEN takes a closer look at the new occupant of 10 Downing Street.

With 57.4 percent of the vote in the Conservative Party leadership contest, Truss can enjoy a comfortable victory over ex-chancellor Sunak. The outgoing foreign secretary’s success is all the more satisfying as her challenger was initially the bookmakers’ favorite to become the next prime minister. Truss’s triumph can be explained by some strategic moves on her part played by the party faithful, but also by mishaps in her rival’s leadership campaign.

When the scandal-plagued Johnson stepped down as prime minister in July, Truss was by no means a shoo-in to replace him. She probably got a boost when Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, who is seen as a likely frontrunner, announced he wouldn’t stand. When the field was narrowed to two candidates by Conservative MPs, Sunak was in the lead. The 42-year-old was seen as a political heavyweight who, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, steered the UK economy through the Covid-19 pandemic.

But in the end Sunak turned out to be no match for his former colleague. During the leadership campaign, Truss, who was educated at the state school, emphasized that she does not come from a traditional conservative background. On the contrary, her left-wing parents took her on anti-Thatcher protest marches in the 1980s. As a student, she joined the center-left Liberal Democrats before switching to the Conservatives in 1996, the year she graduated.

Truss successfully underlined her less privileged upbringing. “I was someone who wasn’t born in the Conservative party. I went to school in Paisley and Leeds, I went to high school. My parents were left-wing activists and I’ve been on a political journey ever since.” she said during an ITV televised debate in July.

“He totally blew it, didn’t he?”

In contrast, Sunak’s proximity to vast wealth proved to be a major pitfall. In early April, it emerged that his wife, Indian citizen Akshata Murty, could have saved millions of pounds in tax by claiming “non-resident status”, a legal loophole that allows people to evade tax in the UK on their foreign earnings. . Murty’s father is the billionaire founder of Indian IT services company Infosys, in which she has a 0.93% stake, making her currently wealthier than Queen Elizabeth II. Despite not being illegal, the news was a huge blow to the Sunak campaign. Because Sunak himself came from a privileged background (he was privately educated at the prestigious Winchester College), the idea that his wife would dodge taxes on such vast wealth was in stark contrast to the cost of living crisis faced by ordinary people.

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Findings from focus groups organized by the British NGO More In Common leave no doubt about the damage done to the Sunak campaign. Speaking to The Times, director Luke Tryl said: “As the tax cases come out, a woman in one of the focus groups said, ‘I thought he was the one, but he totally screwed up, didn’t he?’ That moment it crystallized out.”

Channeling the ‘Iron Lady’

Born in Oxford but educated in both Scotland and England, Truss describes himself as a “child of the Union” (of the four nations of the UK) and is vehemently opposed to Scottish independence. While attending primary school in the Scottish town of Paisley, outside Glasgow, Truss played the part of Thatcher in a fake general election at age seven. But she didn’t get a single vote – unsurprisingly, considering the conservative icon was very unpopular in Scotland. Four decades later, Truss seems keen to channel the Iron Lady into her sartorial choices and photo opportunities, though she denies this. With Thatcher’s legacy still resonating positively with the conservative base, the comparisons probably didn’t hurt her in the leadership contest.

Truss “clearly sought to appeal to a figure in Conservative Party history who is still greatly admired,” said Dr. Catherine Haddon, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government, an independent think tank in London.

Loyalty to the boss

Thatcher is not alone in casting a long shadow. With the new prime minister elected by members of the Conservative Party, who make up just 0.32% of the British electorate, both Truss and Sunak had to do their best to appeal to party believers. But a poll published in the Observer in mid-August showed that given the choice between keeping Johnson at the head or picking one of his two challengers, a whopping 63 percent of party members chose Johnson over Truss (at just 22). percent), while 68 percent supported him above Sunak (just 19 percent).

These findings, reflecting Johnson’s enduring popularity with the conservative base, go a long way to explaining Truss’s success. During her time in Johnson’s cabinet, first as trade secretary and then secretary of state, Truss consistently followed the party line. She stood by her boss to the end, even at the height of the damaging ‘Partygate’ scandal. Given Johnson’s lingering influence over the Conservative Party – The Times recently reported that some MPs are experiencing “seller’s remorse” over his departure – her loyalty appears to be paying off. By contrast, Sunak is believed to have betrayed Johnson by helping to trigger the massive wave of ministerial resignations that led to his downfall.

“What about you, Mr. Sunak?”

In late July, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, one of Johnson’s most staunch supporters in the outgoing cabinet, retweeted a Photoshopped image showing Sunak as Brutus and Johnson as Julius Caesar as Sunak prepared to stab his former boss in the back. During a Sky News televised debate in early August, Sunak was stunned when asked “Et tu, Mr Sunak?”, forcing the host and an audience member to explain the Shakespeare reference. As principled as Sunak’s resignation was, it seems to have cost him crucial votes among party members and confirmed a conservative party cliché that “he who wields the knife never wears the crown”.

To make matters worse, Sunak made a series of unfortunate blunders that drew negative headlines. Whether it was his favorite McDonald’s meal, upcoming football games, or using the contactless payment feature on his bank card, every faux pas made him seem out of touch with ordinary people.

The temptation of supply-side economics

Coming from the right-wing of the Conservative Party, Truss was also aided by her free-market instincts, which usually appeal to party believers. Perhaps in an effort to differentiate himself from Sunak, who annoyed conservatives by raising taxes as chancellor, Truss has promised tax cuts “from day one” of her premiership. Sunak has vehemently criticized this plan for likely only fueling more inflation, which is already at a 40-year high of 10.1 percent, but his warnings have so far been heeded.

Criticism is also coming from the left, with increasing calls for more direct support for the poorest amid a worsening cost of living crisis. Amid skyrocketing utility bills, Truss appears to be softening her opposition to what she calls “handouts” and pledged to provide “immediate support” to households, without giving details as of yet.

As for Sunak, he has indicated that he would refuse to serve in a Truss cabinet, the two being at odds with economic policy. His admission in his resignation letter“I recognize that this may be my last ministerial job,” now seems highly prophetic.

Challenges at home and abroad

Despite Truss’ success in reaching the pinnacle of British politics, the hard work lies ahead, both at home and abroad. She faces a huge challenge in coping with the cost of living crisis that leaves millions of people unable to afford to heat their homes. Rising inflation has also sparked a wave of union action on a scale not seen in decades. dr. Haddon noted how important it is for Truss to learn the “lessons of the past few years” [under Johnson] when it comes to dealing with crises, because we are actually on the brink of or in the middle of another crisis.” She added: “Every prime minister struggles. They always participate and want to be different from their predecessor. They always think they will do better by doing it differently.”

Nevertheless, on the war in Ukraine, Truss is expected to continue Johnson’s policy of strong support for Kiev. “We’re in it for the long haul,” she told TBEN in an interview at the beginning of July. But her recent comments that “the jury is out” on whether French President Emmanuel Macron is friend or foe has caused consternation, as France is one of the UK’s closest allies. Meanwhile, leftists are baffled by her plans to continue the outgoing government’s attempt to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Political differences aside, many critics see Truss as an intellectual lightweight who just can’t handle it; a bad imitation of Thatcher. In a scathing column in The Times in mid-August, former Conservative MP Matthew Parris warned readers not to be under any illusions. “Stick to your first impressions,” he wrote. “Liz Truss is a mass of hubris and ambition the size of a planet teetering on a pinhead of a political brain. It must all collapse.”

Time will tell if he was right.