As an insight into a prime minister, the new Liz Truss biography missed its brief moment. But as a document of the Tory Party’s identity crisis, it’s evergreen.
Then-Foreign Secretary and candidate for Prime Minister Liz Truss gives a speech and meets with supporters on 28 July 2022 in Morley, England. (Photo by Henry Nicholls – Pool / Getty Images)
Liz Truss had been Prime Minister for just 30 days when she was forced to deliver a speech to save her premiership. After the chaos of the mini budget, she arrived in Birmingham to reassure the markets that there was some method behind the economic madness. Historically, politicians have used their first conference speech as PM to unite the country behind their programme. In the 1960s, Harold Wilson talked about creating a nation which ‘releases the energies of our people at every age.’ Fast forward to 2007 and Gordon Brown talked about a society where ‘no matter where you come from… if you try hard, we will help you make the most of your talents’.
Liz Truss, by contrast, framed her speech around the things that she really hates about modern Britain. In the latest incarnation of the ‘enemies of the people’, the ‘anti-growth coalition’ were identified as the individuals who had held Britain back for the past decade. Enemies included Labour, the Lib-Dems, the SNP, the militant unions, the ‘vested interests dressed up as think tanks’, talking heads, Brexit deniers, and Extinction Rebellion. This is the coalition who ‘prefer protesting to doing’, as they ‘taxi from north London townhouses to the BBC studios to dismiss anyone challenging the status quo’.
It was, even by the standards of the modern Conservative Party, a speech beyond parody. In the following days, a clip from the 1970s sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin hinted at the absurd position that Truss found herself in. In the show Leonard Rossiter’s character was asked to join a new insurgent ‘army equipped to fight for Britain when the balloon goes up’. The ‘forces of anarchy’ and ‘wreckers of law and order’ were a who’s who of enemies of the right in the 1970s—from Maoists and Trotskyists to football supporters, punks, foreign surgeons, and squatters. Back then, such ramblings were restricted to the sitcom world. By 2022 the fears of societal collapse at the hands of the left had made their way all the way to Number 10.
The Conservative Party’s ruthlessness ensured that Truss did not survive much longer. Today the party would prefer it if her name was never spoken of again, which is bad news for the co-writers of the first and potentially last biography of her. Out of the Blue became a major news story before it had even hit the shelves, when Keir Starmer referenced its release at PMQs. Now the authors, the Sun’s Harry Cole and the Spectator’s James Heale, have the unenviable task of trying to sell the book to the public. Yet while the Tories want to move on, the story of the ‘shortest premiership’ is an important moment for the country and the Conservative Party.
For historians, her 44 days in office will enter political folklore. The mini budget has already, as the authors admit in the introduction, ‘sparked comparisons to Suez, and Britain leaving the Gold Standard, as one of the worst errors of the past 100 years in British policy making’. But there are also important observations for our immediate future in Out of the Blue. In reality, the rise and fall of Liz Truss is the rise and fall of a certain strand of libertarianism that believed that its time had come. And its failure points to an identity crisis that won’t be solved anytime soon.
The identity crisis within the Conservative ranks is nothing new. Since the vote to leave the EU in 2016, the party has wrestled with how to interpret the result. The hard choices and economic tradeoffs of Brexit were masked during the Boris Johnson era as the combination of Corbynism and ‘getting Brexit done’ secured him an electoral victory. Johnson ruthlessly targeted the Red Wall and implanted the idea of Levelling Up into the public’s minds so well that, as a major survey by UK in a Changing Europe showed, most people across the country now agree with ‘some sort of economic redistribution to disadvantaged areas’. For lots of voters the 2016 referendum was a protest against globalisation and the trickle-down economics of the post-Thatcher years.
By contrast, the Truss vision—the ‘Singapore on Thames’—has never had an electoral mandate. But the Conservative Party believed that ‘Trussonomics’ could revive their fortunes in the polls and deliver a new economic orthodoxy. So just how did she reach the top of the party? It was the Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie who said that her leadership was effectively an experiment which turned Britain into a giant ‘laboratory’ for the libertarian policies of the Institute of Economic Affairs. And there was plenty of media support for that approach. As the Daily Telegraph argued, the Kwarteng budget was a victory for the free marketeers, the IEA, and neo-monetarists who understood how the real economy worked. The Daily Mail championed it as a ‘true’ Tory budget, and the Sun applauded it as a moment of huge change: ‘Our new revolutionary go-for-growth agenda will liberate this country’s pent-up potential.’
How did the party and the Truss supporters in the media get it so wrong? It is clear from reading Out of the Blue that Truss had been gripped by the Tufton Street think tanks that have long argued for deregulation. From her period working at Reform to the writing of Britannia Unchained to the creation of the Free Enterprise Group, Truss soaked up their arguments, their ideas, and their philosophies. As the IEA’s Mark Littlewood reveals in the book, Truss had probably been to more of their events than Margaret Thatcher: ‘She has been one of the most involved MPs in think tanks, in terms of the fundamental ideas of public policy, of any side in the last 50 years.’
Yet Truss could not have risen to the top without cultivating support beyond those think tanks. Reading Out of the Blue to understand the nature of the modern Conservative Party shows how Truss was perfectly in step with members and the media about the revival of Thatcherism. There is little doubt that the legacy of Mrs Thatcher still looms large over British politics. In recent years it was Labour, and the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who mythologised her in order to make their case for political change. In 2019, Labour battled to keep hold of their voters by reminding voters about the politics of Mrs Thatcher: ‘The North Remembers’ was a campaign that focused on the 1980s, with the conclusion that ‘You can never trust the Tories’. In post-industrial towns a leaflet was circulated with a picture of Thatcher’s handbag on it. ‘Don’t let them finish the job’, it said.
Truss, by contrast, used the idea of Thatcher to implant herself in the hearts and minds of Tory voters. Part of this came from her own desire to use new marketing techniques to connect with the voters. While Thatcher ushered in the era of modern political marketing through the adverts of Saatchi and Saatchi, Truss used social media to develop her own brand: ‘All politicians have their favoured medium of communication: Winston Churchill had his wireless, Harold Wilson had the television. Liz Truss preferred Instagram,’ observe the authors.
Truss understood what the media wanted even if her quest for the perfect photo meant that meetings were delayed and officials were left angry. One revealing anecdote comes from a short six-hour visit to Sydney where she made advisors drive around suburbs to find a niche coffee shop that sold British coffee beans. It was a photo opportunity that was meant to symbolise how ‘the hipster coffee capital of the world was relying on British imports’—yet they were never published for failing to meet her high demands.
By copying the imagery of Thatcher, it was inevitable that newspapers would draw comparisons. As the Tories churned through leaders, the Sun dubbed her ‘Thatcher 2.0’, while the Daily Mail talked her up as a potential Prime Minister. The Times even indulged her in a David Bowie-style photo shoot and asked if she was ‘The new iron lady’. And while she was ridiculed on social media for wearing the same outfit as Thatcher had for a leader’s debate, a source admitted to the authors that it was all part of the act: ‘You forget that the people that are actually going to decide the next Prime Minister, really, really, really like Margaret Thatcher.’ Some in the media expected her to govern in Thatcher’s style. As the writer Frederick Forsyth argued in the Daily Express in her first few days in office, ‘It could be we have another Margaret Thatcher here. About time. We have had 30 years of bumble and cannot-be-done.’
There was always a contradiction in her approach. As part of her ‘backstory’, Truss continually referred to the pain of the Thatcher Years, growing up in Paisley and Leeds during the 1980s and the effects of social and economic deprivation on those around her. ‘I know what it is like to live somewhere that isn’t feeling the benefits of economic growth… I’ve seen the boarded-up shops. I’ve seen people left with no hope turning to drugs.” And when she transitioned from cosplaying as Mrs Thatcher on Instagram to governing in her style, it was clear that she was not in the same league.
In her quest to win over the members Truss actually read the wrong lessons from Thatcher’s leadership. It is often forgotten now, but her initial route to victory in 1979 was built upon the votes of millions of ex-Labour voters. When she was making a name for herself in 1975 Thatcher had tried to win over the ‘moderate’ trade unionists in Britain: ‘Go out and join the work of your union’, she argued, ‘go to its meetings—and stay to the end to learn the union rules as well as the far left know them’.
On the one hand, the early Thatcher talked about British decline and how her aim was to ‘not merely put a temporary brake on socialism but to stop its onward march once and for all.’ At the same time, she understood that Labour voters had once believed in its values. Thatcher urged Conservatives to be bold enough to accept ‘those who have never been with us but who are prepared to support us now because they put country before party’. In her first conference speech as Prime Minister she was not yet strong enough take on her enemies: ‘Let us work together in hope and above all in friendship… You gave us your trust. Be patient. We shall not betray that trust’.
Truss read the lesson that Thatcherism was all about the ‘shock and awe’ of economic policy. But she forgot about the need to win the arguments in the country first. ‘Truss had promised to be the disruptor in chief’ argue the authors, but ‘almost all of that disruption occurred for the financial markets, among high-street mortgage lenders and within her own party’.
Far from being out of date, Out of the Blue is an essential guide to understanding the evolution of the Conservative Party over the past decade. Truss ultimately emerged as a contender by depicting a picture of Britain with insurmountable problems. This is the country, if you believe Truss, of eye-watering high taxes, unacceptable NHS waiting lists, an uncontrollable migrant crisis, and a culture of strikes that can bring Britain to a standstill. When Truss first became an MP in 2010, David Cameron had told the voters that ‘you are voting for hope, you are voting for optimism, you are voting for change, you are voting for the fresh start this country needs’. Out of the Blue leaves you wondering what the last twelve years have all been for.
Out of the Blue: The Inside Story of the Unexpected Rise and Rapid Fall of Liz Truss by Harry Cole and James Heale is published by HarperCollins.Original post