A prime minister unlike any other

Published by The i paper (19th September, 2022)

As she waited for her accession to the political crown, Liz Truss briefed that she would hit the ground running with a barrage of measures to define her reign. She knew that her name meant nothing to most members of the public, she had been catapulted into Downing Street with minimal enthusiasm from her party and was inheriting massive problems at home and abroad. “Her fate will be determined not in the first 100 days but the first 10,” opined one Cabinet minister.

But then, of course, the Queen died when Ms Truss was only two days into the job and politics was put on hold for the period of national mourning. So all we saw of our new leader was a fascinating Prime Minister’s Questions – at which she actually answered one of the queries from her Labour rival by ruling out a windfall tax on energy company profits – followed by her announcement of the energy price cap.

The jousting in Parliament between two dullish party leaders felt like a refreshing break after Boris Johnson’s self-serving bluster and shallow boasts, with emergence of clear ideological divide and a focus on policy difference – although the biggest single fiscal intervention in peacetime history seemed at odds with all that small state rhetoric that won Truss the keys to Downing Street from her party.

This week, following the funeral, politics will resume and we will get a clearer view of the fourth Tory prime minister in six years. Truss plans a blitz of policy initiatives in the four days before Parliament breaks up for party conferences, culminating in her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget on Friday.

There have been suggestions the bill of rights, obesity strategy, gambling reforms and a cap on bankers’ bonuses will all be abandoned. Johnson’s increase in national insurance contributions and corporation tax will be ditched, adding another £30bn to the nation’s massive debt pile. There was Sunday paper talk of a VAT cut and lifting income tax thresholds.

These announcements will shape her premiership. First impressions are crucial and the public can make up its mind fast. Yet there seems consensus that Truss will turn out to be a disaster as she tries to restore belief in Britain’s future, despite rising prices, a falling pound and badly struggling public services – with just two years to make her mark before voters deliver their verdict at an election.

Britons seem despondent after more than a decade of Tory rule, with a majority telling pollsters they expect her to be a poor or terrible leader. There is little excitement on Tory benches over their party’s latest reset. Labour is significantly ahead in polls, despite its dismal lack of policies and Sir Keir Starmer’s low approval ratings. Truss’s speaking style feels enervated. Even her awkward curtsey to the new King attracted derision.

It looks bad. Yet one prominent Labour figure told me that while Truss was the candidate they most wanted to win the Tory leadership contest, he felt less sure on this view after observing her first steps in power. The public perspective on leaders is shaped in comparison to their rivals and predecessors. And he was intrigued by her “geeky” character, which he thought might prove popular after the showboating of her boorish predecessor, and was impressed by her determination, ruthlessness and, above all, her ideological zeal. “She is unlike any previous prime minister we’ve seen before,” he said. And yes, he meant that as a positive comment.

Clearly, Truss has been a victim of sexism: dismissed by many colleagues, derided by commentators and – according to one well-placed source – laughed at behind her back in Downing Street when proposing ideas to the previous regime. She may seem gauche but even in that debut outing at PMQs, it was noticeable how she grew in confidence during the exchanges with Starmer.

She speaks directly, a potentially revolutionary approach in Westminster, and seems set on a mission to remould Britain by stripping back red tape, freeing business from regulation and reducing taxes. She and Kwarteng claim to be fixated on boosting growth – even if proposed reforms are unpopular, such as letting energy firms make huge profits and bankers trouser vast bonuses – in their bid to improve the nation’s competitiveness.

This is a risky strategy if they stick to it, especially with so little time before the next election. It is controversial, especially in challenging times when many families and most public services are struggling. Her party, corroded by populism, feels locked in a Maoist mindset of permanent insurgency.

There are aspects I dislike, fearing some measures to be economically foolish and that others will worsen inequality – even before Team Truss throws in any of the revolting anti-refugee and culture war rhetoric that scars their party. But this was all outlined by the new leader and her Chancellor in their Britannia Unchained book a decade ago. And if they follow through with their low tax, light regulation vision of Singapore-upon-Thames, then at least there is a consistency returning to our government with serious leaders of both main parties. Truss might even force Labour back into policy-led opposition.

Despite being the longest-serving Cabinet minister, and for all her talk of delivery, Truss left little legacy in five previous Cabinet posts. So maybe I will rapidly be proved wrong and Truss will turn out to be another disaster in Downing Street playing tawdry tribal games and subsumed by scandal while problems fester. Or perhaps she will flip-flop all over the spectrum, shedding her latest ideology just like she abandoned the Liberal Democrats and her opposition to Brexit.

But right now, there is at least the glimmer of something interesting: a prime minister focused on growing her country’s economy with coherent policies that spark a clash of ideas in Westminster. Truss is betting that voters will respect a leader with conviction and clarity. Win or lose, this makes her potentially the most intriguing Tory leader this century.

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