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 Liz Truss, 47, and how did she manage to overtake rival Rishi Sunak in the race to succeed Boris Johnson? FRANCE 24 examines the new occupant of 10 Downing Street.
With 57.4% of the vote in the Conservative Party leadership race, Truss can relish a comfortable victory over former Chancellor Sunak. The success of the outgoing foreign minister is all the more satisfying as her challenger was initially the bookmakers’ favorite to be the next prime minister. Truss’ triumph can be explained by a few strategic moves on her part that played to party faithful, but also by mishaps in the leadership campaign of her rival.
When the scandal-ridden Johnson resigned as prime minister in July, Truss was by no means a shoo-in to replace him. She arguably received a boost when Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, seen as a likely frontrunner, announced that he would not be standing. Once the field was narrowed to two candidates by Tory MPs, Sunak was in the lead. The 42-year-old was seen as a political heavyweight who steered Britain’s economy through the Covid-19 pandemic as finance minister.
But in the end, Sunak turned out to be no match for his former colleague. During the leadership campaign, Truss, who was educated in public school, emphasized that she did not come from a traditional conservative background. On the contrary, her leftist parents took her on anti-Thatcher protest marches in the 1980s. As a student, she joined the centre-left Liberal Democrats, before switching to the Conservatives in 1996, the year she graduated.
Truss successfully highlighted his less privileged upbringing. “I was someone who was not born into the Conservative Party. I went to school in Paisley and Leeds, I went to a comprehensive school. My parents were left-wing activists, and I I’ve been on a political trip since,” he added. she said during an ITV talk show in July.
“He completely screwed up, 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 national Akshata Murty, was able to save millions of pounds in tax by claiming ‘non-domicile status’, a legal loophole that allows people to avoid paying UK tax on their overseas income. Murty’s father is the founding billionaire of Indian IT services company Infosys, in which she has a 0.93% stake, currently making her richer than Queen Elizabeth II. Although there was no suggestion of illegality, the news was a blow to Sunak’s campaign. With Sunak himself coming from a privileged background (he was privately educated at the prestigious Winchester College), the idea of his wife avoiding taxes on such great wealth was a stark contrast to the cost of living crisis faced by ordinary people.
The findings of 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, its director Luke Tryl said: “As the tax stuff comes out, in one of the chat groups, a woman said, ‘I thought it was him, but he completely screwed up, didn’t he?’ That moment crystallized him.”
Channeling the “Iron Lady”
Born in Oxford but educated in both Scotland and England, Truss describes herself as a “child of the Union” (of the four nations of the United Kingdom) and vehemently opposes Scottish independence. While attending primary school in the Scottish town of Paisley, outside Glasgow, Truss starred as Thatcher in a mock general election aged seven. But she failed to garner a single vote – hardly surprising, since the Tory icon was deeply unpopular in Scotland. Four decades later, Truss has seemed keen to channel the Iron Lady into her clothing choices and photo opportunities, although she denies it. With Thatcher’s legacy still resonating positively with the conservative base, comparisons likely did him no harm in the leadership race.
Liz Truss denies having ever “invited comparisons” between her and Margaret Thatcher, and accuses “the media of continuing to talk about it”. pic.twitter.com/PtGeDFeHY1
— Adam Bienkov (@AdamBienkov) August 23, 2022
Truss was “obviously trying to appeal to a figure in Conservative Party history who is still much admired,” said Dr Catherine Haddon, senior researcher at the Institute for Government, an independent think tank in London.
Loyalty to boss
Thatcher isn’t the only one casting a long shadow. With the new Prime Minister chosen by Conservative Party members, who make up just 0.32% of the British electorate, Truss and Sunak had to do their best to attract party loyalists. But an opinion poll published in the Observer in mid-August showed that, given the choice between keeping Johnson in charge or electing one of his two challengers, 63% of party members favored Johnson over Truss (out of just 22%), while 68% backed him over Sunak (out of only 19%).
These results, which reflect Johnson’s enduring popularity with the conservative base, largely explain Truss’ success. During his time in Johnson’s cabinet, first as Commerce Secretary and then as Foreign Secretary, Truss always toed the party line. She supported her boss until the end, even at the height of the damaging “Partygate” scandal. Given Johnson’s continued influence over the Conservative Party – The Times recently reported that some MPs were feeling ‘seller’s remorse’ over his departure — his loyalty seems to have paid off. By contrast, Sunak is seen as having betrayed Johnson by helping to spark the massive wave of ministerial resignations that led to his downfall.
“And you, Mr. Sunak?”
In late July, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, one of Johnson’s staunchest supporters in the outgoing cabinet, retweeted then deleted a photoshopped image representing Sunak as Brutus and Johnson as Julius Caesar, with Sunak preparing to stab his former boss in the back. During a TV debate on Sky News in early August, Sunak was taken aback when asked “Et tu, Mr Sunak?”, leaving the presenter and an audience member to explain the Shakespearean reference. As well-founded as Sunak’s resignation was, it appears 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 gaffes that made negative headlines. Either it’s about her favorite McDonald’s meal, next football matches Where using the contactless payment function on their bank cardevery misstep made him seem out of touch with ordinary people.
The lure of supply-side economics
Hailing from the right-wing of the Conservative Party, Truss has also been helped by her free-market instincts, which tend to appeal to party loyalists. Perhaps in a bid to differentiate himself from Sunak, who angered Tories by raising taxes as chancellor, Truss promised tax cuts “from the first day” of his term as Prime Minister. Sunak has heavily criticized this plan as likely to simply create more inflationwhich already sits at a 40-year high of 10.1%, but its warnings have so far fallen on deaf ears.
Criticism has also come from the left, with growing calls for more direct support for the poorest amid a deepening cost of living crisis. Amid soaring energy bills, Truss seemed to soften her opposition to what she calls “handouts” and promised to “provide immediate support” to householdswithout giving details.
As for Sunak, he has indicated that he would refuse to serve in a Truss cabinet, with the two squarely at odds over economic policy. His admission in his resignation letter“I recognize that this may be my last ministerial job,” now appears highly prophetic.
Challenges at home and abroad
Despite Truss’ success in reaching the pinnacle of British politics, hard work remains to be done, both at home and abroad. She faces a daunting challenge to cope with the cost of living crisis, which could see millions of people unable to afford to heat their homes. Rising inflation has also led to a wave of industrial action on a scale not seen in decades. Dr Haddon stressed the importance for Truss of learning the “lessons of the last few years [under Johnson] in terms of crisis management, because we are effectively on the brink or in the middle of another.” She added: “Every prime minister struggles. They always join and they want to be different from their predecessor. They always think they’ll do better by doing things differently.”
Nonetheless, on the war in Ukraine, Truss is expected to continue Johnson’s policy of firm support in Kyiv. “We’re here for the long haul,” she told FRANCE 24 in an interview in early July. But his recent comments that “the jury is out on whether French President Emmanuel Macron is friend or foe have caused consternation, as France is one of the UK’s closest allies. Meanwhile, leftists are appalled by his plans to continue the outgoing government’s attempt to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Beyond political differences, many critics see Truss as an intellectual lightweight who is simply not up to the task; a poor imitation of Thatcher. In a scathing Times column in mid-August, former Tory MP Matthew Parris warned readers not to be under any illusions. “Stick to your first impressions,” he wrote. “Liz Truss is a planet-sized mass of overconfidence and ambition teetering on a pinhead of a political mastermind. Everything must come crashing down.”
Time will tell if he was right.