About a decade ago, I worked for Liz Truss. I was one of her Parliamentary Researchers in the middle of the coalition.
Once you’ve worked for Liz, you can never quite leave her behind. I stopped using a radio alarm in order to eliminate the risk that I would ever be woken up again by her voice launching itself from the Today programme. Now, all the well-meaning friends, relatives, and colleagues I hear from every time she gets a promotion want to know — would she be a good PM?
As a very former (and fairly mediocre) bag carrier, I can hardly give the final word. But I did have a view of the early years of Liz’s parliamentary and ministerial career. I managed her inbox, wrote her briefing notes, and trailed behind her through the corridors of Westminster and the lanes of Norfolk.
Whatever case gets made against her for PM will likely be accurate but also thin. She has snafus behind her as well as successes. But who doesn’t? She isn’t Boris.
She has an ego that can barely fit into her constistuency
Like many impressive politicians, she has an ego that can barely fit into her constituency. The way she posed on a tank like Maggie was all too familiar. Indeed, Liz has long been role-playing as Thatcher. But she didn’t seem to know that Mrs T. was kind and courteous to her staff, while being abrasive to her colleagues. One poor soul who toiled unappreciated for Liz was asked — as a prelude to some stoutly delivered feedback — whether they’d had trouble processing information before. Another got used to a hard squeeze on the elbow as a sign that they hadn’t ended a meeting early enough for the approval for “the Truss”. Feedback was often given in public and without much softening. Having a “divergent mind” was about as withering a remark as you could be on the end of, especially if you didn’t know what it meant.
Nor was she above alpha behaviour. She often had me hanging around corridors she would be passing through piled high with letters she would, inevitably, fail to sign. She got me to redraft some things so many times it became pointless to send them. “Get it right, first time!” was hard to argue with but not useful advice.
If is no surprise that many articles report her colleagues calling her names like “cringe-making”, “insubstantial” and “a robot with a bit missing.” I can well imagine why Dominic Cummings thinks she’s totally crackers. Liz is perfect fodder to keep the gossip mill grinding. But most of this is trivial. A lot of what irritates the Guardian about Liz is veneer. Her bark is worse than her bite. Her gaffes are a distraction from her talent.
For all her flaws, Truss is a splendid politician. Her staff were pretty loyal after they left. This is because she has Thatcher’s serious side. Underneath the self-dramatising power posing, Liz is hugely serious. She was known informally in our office, among other things, as the Minister for Maths.
Liz is the real article
Unlike so many other politicians, she’s an economist with coherent policy positions. Despite appearances, she seeks, and takes, a lot of advice. She might be an awkward public personality, but she’s an excellent, practical, information-hungry listener. She’s exactly the sort of Tory that irritates the left, but she’s not just a talking head. Liz is the real article. It wasn’t just loyalty. Many of us really did believe in her. I certainly do — so long as she’s in the right position.
She once told me that Nigel Lawson’s memoir The View From Number 11, is the best book on economics ever written. An exaggeration, perhaps. But there’s an important truth wrapped up in that bluster. Lawson was just as important as Thatcher to the reforms of the 1980s. No Lawson, no Thatcherism. It was he who gave married women, for the first time ever, their own personal allowance for income tax. He abolished a tax in every budget, reduced the rate of income tax, extended the VAT base, reformed corporate tax, deregulated the City, and, miracle of miracles, ran a budget surplus. Just imagine, a Tory party interested in growth as well as austerity!
It is this Lawsonian spirit that makes Liz so appealing to her supporters. She is not interested in tinkering. She is in politics to make real change. No wonder she used to top the Conservative Home poll as the most popular cabinet minister. Britain needs reforms in housing, taxation, regulation, science funding, and more. Growth and productivity need a kick in the pants. The case against Liz is thin gruel in these circumstances. It’s easy to find people being snarky about her knowledge of Foucault, but in an age of trivial politics, Liz has the potential to be a change-maker.
When I knew her, Liz wanted a country where more teenagers get a better (or, all too often, a decent) maths education; a country where more mothers could go to work without having to pay more for their childcare than their mortgage; a country that could develop its human capital for the future. How many times did I listen to her bemoan the way the system left young people without a proper education? How often did I hear her lament mine or someone else’s lack of outward ambition as an example of Britain’s malaise? The world doesn’t always hear Liz but she’s right.
We need a new reformer
Yet being Prime Minister is no longer the best job for someone like Liz. It requires too much time spent on PR. Speeches are not Liz’s forte. She might enjoy pretending to be Elizabeth I (and why not? She was always a good patriot). But we don’t lack communicators or visionaries. We need a new reformer to make the roaring twenties a reality.
That’s why, if Liz Truss becomes Prime Minister, it will have been a missed opportunity. She’d be much better in the quiet office of Chancellor. That would give her the scope to make Lawsonian reforms. Then she’d really live up to her supporters’ expectations. A good dose of Liz as Chancellor is just what the country, and the Tory party, needs. Pairing her with a leader like Kemi Baddenoch would be a powerful combination.
So channel your inner Lawson, Liz. Britain needs you!
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