There seems to be quite a disconnect between how Tory party members view Liz Truss – “Maggie in the making” – and how the public see her – “God help us!”
If I had to assess the centre of gravity of the questions and comments directed at me as I’ve gone around the place in recent days, it would be this: “Is she really as awful as she seems?” We shall soon find out.
So I am giving early warning to the woman on the Central Line who plonked herself next to me as I travelled to Holborn, and told me that “I can’t watch her on TV, I can’t stand the voice or the mannerisms, I can’t even read about her because I can’t believe this is happening” that precisely because it is happening, I am devoting every item of this week’s column to Truss. It may lose me a reader, but it has to be done.
“Prime minister Liz Truss” are four words no serious democracy should have to confront. Yet those words will soon be part of our language and landscape, and one of the reasons is that media coverage around her is of the same superficiality as that which surrounded her predecessor.
Boris Johnson lasted far longer than he should have done because so much of the media normalised abnormality. They took his words at face value even when they contradicted fact, or even what he had said the day before.
They turned away from huge stories staring them in the face, about Russian interference in our democracy, about his debasing of standards, his lies in parliament, his incompetence, cronyism, corruption in Covid contracting, about Brexit going wrong, about a huge dislocation between promises made and what was delivered. Why bother too much with that when there is another pledge about levelling up to report, another tossed-off Telegraph column to digest, or another cheesy picture from his taxpayer-funded vanity photographers to print?
Given the coverage of the contest so far, I sense Liz Truss will get away with much of the same when – sorry Rishi, but barring mass death of the ageing membership, it’s when, not if – she enters Downing Street.
Truss boasts endlessly about her reputation for delivery, focusing on her post-Brexit trade deals, yet not once have I seen her challenged on the reality of those deals. The only detailed analysis I have seen on the damage they are doing to British farming and trade has been on Australian and New Zealand TV, where politicians and farmers can’t quite believe their luck that they gained so much in exchange for so little.
Nor have I seen her asked about her refusal, as justice secretary, to stand up for the judiciary when they were condemned as enemies of the people for doing their job, which is to uphold the law. As attorney general Suella Braverman seeks to limit the extent to which government lawyers should advise ministers on the lawfulness, or more likely unlawfulness, of their actions, understand this is all of a piece with the continuing undermining of the rule of law.
Then there is Brexit – there is always Brexit with this shower. I have been looking back at the speeches Truss made before the passionate Remainer turned to hard Brextremist. I am all in favour of “when the facts change, I change my mind,” but given any rational analysis suggests she had been right first time in her warnings about Brexit, it is self-evident that the change has been made for her own political calculations, just as it was with Johnson, rather than the national interest.
Yet have you once seen her properly quizzed on this remarkable speedy journey from one position to its diametric opposite? Me neither.
Compare and contrast the way Labour politicians, years after the change of policy on unilateral nuclear disarmament, were asked why they should be trusted when they had made such a fundamental shift? That took years. Truss shifted her position in days, on the back of a couple of focus group reports.
I have lost count of the number of times she has told us we will always get the truth from her, yet in the next breath she leaps to tell us what a marvellous prime minister Johnson was – not because she believes it, but because some of the Tory members want to hear it. Every time she defends him, she defends lying and criminality, yet that is reported purely as a tactical consideration within the contest.
Would someone please have the guts or the nous to confront her with some of the specific lies and crimes and misdemeanours and ask which ones she supports or condemns? It’d be nice, too, to see her pinned on her links to the hard-right lobbying groups in America that have helped to thwart moves to curb climate change.
As for character, her private life is none of our business, and if her husband has forgiven her for straying, fair enough. But if this was a Labour leadership contest, and one of the married contenders had had an affair with a married MP, Paul Dacre would not be showering her with PR guff in his continuing pathetic hunt for a peerage, but sending out an army of reporters to chase friends and family of both her and Mark Field, and making sure his Daily Mail readers knew every last detail of what went on.
The current government seems to get a kick out of undermining civil servants, which is odd, given you actually do need their support to deliver. For that reason, the morale and attitude of the civil service is a vital indicator of the future success or otherwise of a leader or government.
Here, I fear the worst for Truss. When news came through in the September 2019 reshuffle that she was to be equalities minister, a civil servant who had been with her in one of her previous posts burst into tears. And when she was at Education, Truss was given her own theme song: Cold as Ice by Foreigner.
Apparently, it was not just the title of the song, but the third line, that they felt was especially apposite.
You’re as cold as ice
You’re willing to sacrifice
You never take advice
This, from one of her former civil servants, chimes with what Dominic Cummings has been saying about her too: “She was notorious for ignoring carefully prepared evidence-based advice from officials, only wanting ideas she had come up with personally, and talking to a limited list of right wing advisers.”
This does not bode well. It is also known to most of the journalists who are writing and broadcasting about her. Yet on this, too, they are largely silent.
I like the fourth line of the song: Some day you’ll pay the price, I know.
I am indebted to Pauline Buchanan Black, director general of the Tree Council, which helped the Cameron government deliver on a pledge to plant one million trees in urban settings over five years, for an insight into Truss as environment secretary.
Pauline contacted me out of the blue to say she’d had good relations with Caroline Spelman and Owen Paterson when they were in the post. Her analysis of how things changed when Truss took over, and the coldness and rudeness on the one occasion they met, when the millionth tree was planted and Truss turned up for the photos and the credit, was brutal.
So much so that I asked her to write a piece for us about the whole experience. It fits with the picture I am getting from all too many people… that, yes, woman on the Central Line, I fear she may be as awful as she seems. You can find the piece on our website; it’s typical Truss.