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The blue blazer

Liz Truss’s story is a salutary tale

Artillery Row

I have probably read more instant political biographies than is entirely healthy. As assistant to Anthony Seldon as he wrote his considered retrospective of John Major’s political career, I owned well-thumbed copies of the three — three! — lives of John Major published in 1991. I have a shelf of books with titles like Edward Heath: Prime Minister and Michael Portillo: The Future of the Right. The latest addition is Harry Cole and James Heale’s book about Liz Truss, Out of the Blue. The prospective reader may ask whether a Truss biography is worth reading or whether its ephemeral moment has passed as quickly and definitively as fascination with the early life of Michael Portillo did in 1995. It would be a shame if the shelf-life of this book lasted no longer than the famous Truss lettuce, however, because it is an entertainingly written black comedy that reveals much about how we are governed.

Out of the Blue: The inside story of Liz Truss and her explosive rise to power, Harry Cole and James Heale (HarperCollins, £15.00)

The usual function of instant Prime Ministerial biography is to familiarise the reader with the new occupant of Number 10. A broadly sympathetic author tells recent political history from the perspective of someone who has just been elevated into the main character of the narrative. The instant biographer’s role is to explain an undeniable success, and therefore they tend to be positive about their subject.

Cole and Heale rapidly found themselves facing a more complicated task. They needed to explain not only Truss’s rise to power but also the unprecedented speed with which her triumph turned to disaster. They could not avoid addressing the pre-Prime Ministerial blunders on her record or the deeper personality flaws that made her unable to stay Prime Minister for long. Both authors are well-connected Conservative journalists, and the book reminds the reader of that from time to time — objections to Tory policies are described as “howls of outrage” more than once, for instance. But if Cole and Heale are still on Liz Truss’s Christmas card list, she is even more thick-skinned than the rhino-hide self-confidence described in the book might suggest.

The Truss government was falling as they wrote. It is a tribute to the foresight — or ingenuity — of the authors that the book is as coherent as it is. The Downing Street Weeks are covered breezily, but the chapters benefit from some excellent interviews and anecdotes. Cole and Heale must have completed a final draft of the “early life” sections whilst the Truss rocket was still heading skywards, but those chapters are full of foreboding about the eventual downfall. 

Truss’s Oxford years are the absolute paradigm of what was known at the time (maybe still is) as “hacking”. Hacking means achieving a prominent role in a university society (in her case the Lib Dems) by dint of persistence, a monstrous appetite for self-publicity, and an inability to be embarrassed. Some of the less shady tactics involve turning up to things when rivals are too busy or bored to bother, and encouraging your friends to join to vote for you. It is key to the Truss story.

One can’t credibly accuse her of not believing in anything

For all the self-promotion, Truss is an optimist and a believer in change, which is attractive in a person but also a recipe for pie-eyed policymaking in a politician. One can’t credibly accuse her of not believing in anything — which sets her apart from Johnson and Cameron. Truss might vary her strategy, but the core ideology is remarkably consistent, and she genuinely thinks that applying it in practice will make Britain a better place.

They would probably put it more sympathetically, but Cole and Heale show how Truss’s ideological bubble has been sealed and self-referential since her university years. It is the product of gut instincts reinforced by the output of ideologically congenial think tanks, rather than study of the original works of Hayek or Friedman. When challenged, Truss enjoys the fight rather than considering whether the other side might have a point. In contrast to Margaret Thatcher, she does not seem to respect her opponents, which goes some way to explaining why Thatcher succeeded and Truss failed. The newly-elected Corbynite MP Laura Pidcock was criticised in 2017 for saying she wasn’t interested in being friends with Tories, but Truss has no friends on the Labour benches. Her rejection of the left is described here as “deeply held and almost personal”. There is a lot that the right wing think tank circuit has in common with the protest-oriented left; Truss not only came from that milieu but went on to build links between think tank land and the Conservative benches after she was elected in 2010.

It’s always tricky to write the sections about the pre Downing Street ministerial career of a politician. It makes for a choppy narrative, reflecting the disjointed nature of ministerial life. Authors and the readers trail behind the minister as they try to grasp disparate policy areas and get moved on as soon as they start to understand it properly. One winces with Truss, pitched into replying to agricultural questions in 2014 less than two days after getting the job, when she doesn’t manage very well. The ministerial chapters made me think about Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, with Truss as an Instagram-era Becky Sharp: ruthless ambition and misbehaviour (Truss was a massive leaker and gossiper) leavened with a certain amount of refreshing vivacity and strategically-deployed charm. 

Truss emerges as coldly instrumental about other people

It is only human to have the occasional moment of irritation, and for biographers to record them — even John Major could sometimes be peevish despite his affable nature. But according to Out of the Blue Liz Truss has a substantial mean and sour streak that surfaces when she has had a setback or one of her rivals has been successful. When Sajid Javid pipped her to being the first Cabinet minister of the 2010 intake, Truss’s reaction was unadulterated sour grapes: I “never wanted the role of culture secretary anyway”. Her demotion in 2017 resulted in furious ranting about the unfairness of it all. It’s possible that Out of the Blue is over-representing her petulance and self-centredness — perhaps there are many instances of personal kindness that were difficult to form into anecdotes — but it forms a consistent and believable picture.

Truss emerges as coldly instrumental about other people. Her sacking of Kwasi Kwarteng is the most important example. Perhaps more revealing is the way she responded when questioned about some of the most notorious sentences (“the British are among the worst idlers in the world”) in her jointly authored 2012 book Britannia Unchained. Truss denied her role, saying, “Each author wrote a different chapter. Dominic Raab wrote that chapter — he’s backing Rishi Sunak.” Truss casually broke a ten-year long pact between the authors that they were collectively responsible. For all her libertarianism, public transport is still useful because it provides buses under which to throw former allies.

Out of the Blue is a biography without a hero. Its lasting value is in its revelation that the institutions of the Conservative Party and the British government are so decrepit that they can be hacked by someone like Liz Truss, as if they were merely Oxford student societies writ large. Becky Sharp was successful because society rewarded vanity and artificiality, and she knew how to play the system, unhindered by ties of sentimentality to other people or much of a moral code. The case for Truss is like the case for Becky Sharp: she’s ambitious and strategic, and she’s surrounded by manipulable idiots, so what is she supposed to do? 

Instant biographies tend to end on a note of uncertain triumph; the prize has been won but what will the victor do with it? Out of the Blue is different. It seems to end in comprehensive defeat for its subject and her quixotic attempt to legislate a free market revolution against the grain of the world as she found it. Ronald Reagan, one of Truss’s political heroes, became President just before his 70th birthday, however. Liz Truss will not be 70 until the year 2045, and she shows little inclination to bow out of public life or revisit her ideas. I doubt that Truss herself feels that the story ends with Out of the Blue’s epilogue describing the divided, exhausted party that Rishi Sunak inherited after her 49 days in power. It might be worth keeping Out of the Blue handy for future reference, as a salutary warning.

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