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Liz Truss: The dealmaker in difficulty

Liz Truss leaves 10 Downing street after a cabinet meeting. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Liz Truss is a great cabinet survivor and darling of the Tory members. But will her controversial trade deal with Australia curb her ascent?

Perhaps it’s a measure of misogyny in the parliamentary lobby that Boris Johnson’s main acknowledged successors are Rishi Sunak, Dominic Raab and Michael Gove. The choice of who replaces him as prime minister will almost certainly be a matter, however, for Tory members. And when the ConservativeHome website recently asked them how satisfied they were with the individuals sitting around the cabinet table, their clear favourite, with an emphatic 87.7% of the vote, just happened to be a woman: Liz Truss.

Sunak was the runner-up on 79.5% and Raab came in third on 70.8%. Awkwardly, the incumbent prime minister trailed well behind in 19th place with 33.8%. As for Gove, he was only at 14th place with a 43.6% approval rating. So just what are the high profile trade secretary’s prospects? Is this the time to buy shares in Truss?

“A year ago, I wouldn’t have put a ha’penny on Liz’s chances of succeeding Boris, when Labour was screaming for her resignation after she’d allowed military supplies to be illegally shipped to Saudi Arabia,” says one Tory backbencher. “The trade deal she got last year with Japan during lockdown was, however, impressive and it made people sit up and take notice. Now, she’s on the brink of signing yet another one with Australia. The clever money is these days very much on Liz taking over from Boris.”

Ah yes, the Australia deal. As with earlier trade deals secured by Truss, there was initial fanfare hailing another victory for Global Britain. With this one, however, there has been a significant backlash, reaching as far as the cabinet, where the trade secretary is reportedly embroiled in a “ferocious row” with George Eustice, the environment secretary, and Gove.

The controversy is over Truss’ determination to grant tariff-free access to the UK market to Australian farmers. British farmers fear a sharp rise in cheaply produced Australian beef, lamb and sugar on British supermarket shelves, putting domestic producers under pressure. There are also warnings about animal welfare standards and environmental implications. Sheep and beef farmers in parts of Scotland and Wales are thought to be most at risk.

Truss seems in no mood for compromise, though. To her, the deal, along with the one she signed off with Japan, will be transformational as it will give the UK membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership. That will give our exporters tariff-free access to 11 countries which, it is claimed, gives us access to around 13% of global trade in goods.

The problem with this is that as members of the EU we shared 15% and this new arrangement will place us in direct competition with Australian and New Zealand exporters, who are closer to the markets. Plus, it’s necessary to factor in the increased tensions with China.

The row feels like a decisive moment in assessing the sort of country post-Brexit Britain will become, but it is also a major test of Truss’ political mettle and ambitions. Will she emerge strengthened, or damaged – forced to bear the consequences for some of the very difficult questions that Brexit is posing for the country?

She herself represents a farming constituency, in South West Norfolk, where, at the last election, she achieved a 48.3% vote. But she seems to have an appeal that goes wider than that base. Like Johnson, she may not always be great on detail, but, for all, that she also has the common touch.

“There’s a lot of snobbery about Liz, but she knows how to talk in particular to disaffected Labour members,” adds my helpful backbencher. “She’s not as polished or well-off as most of her cabinet colleagues and yet they under-estimate her at their peril.”

Truss’s father was a university professor at Leeds and her mother worked as a nurse and a teacher and was a fully paid-up member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The family were resolutely left wing, and Liz was packed off to the local comprehensive.

She once took part in a march shouting “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out” at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. A scholarship to Oxford and jobs at Shell as a commercial manager and Cable & Wireless as economics director shifted her politics sharply from Labour, via the Lib Dems – to which she briefly belonged – to the libertarian Conservative right.

She is not a great speaker or a natural media star which is why, in recent years, it’s been her male rivals the Tory high command have been dispatching to the TV studios. They know only too well that if you Google the words “car crash interview” and Truss, there is a lot to choose from. Her encounter with Eddie Mair in 2019 being a case in point. He asked her if she had herself experienced austerity and she said she had, but then couldn’t say in what way. He then asked her if she felt people could change their minds on the EU referendum and her position appeared to be that it was fine so long as they switched – as she had – from remain to leave.

Still, she grasped sooner than most how Twitter could be used as a political weapon – Instagram, too – and then, of course, there were her speeches and videos which were seen either as comedy gold or terrifyingly ill-informed. Her remarks at the 2014 Tory conference about “pork markets” and “British cheese” inspired a thousand memes. And, just before Christmas, parts of a speech she gave on how children in her class at school were left unable to read or write because too much time was taken up learning about racism and sexism were discreetly taken down from the government website after her political opponents called it “bonkers”.

As for the skeletons, take your pick. In 2012, as the founder of the Free Enterprise Group, she put her name to a booklet entitled Britannia Unchained, which became notorious because of a single sentence that asserted that “the British are among the worst idlers in the world”.

There is then the affair she had with Mark Field that began in 2005 when Conservative Campaign Headquarters decided she needed a mentor when she was seeking a parliamentary seat and alighted upon the MP for Cities of London and Westminster. The relationship lasted for 18 months and precipitated the end of Field’s 12-year marriage. Hers – to Hugh O’Leary, a finance director, by whom she has two children – survived, and according to her, became stronger.

Tories can be remarkably relaxed about adulterous men but often not adulterous women. The new Tory leader David Cameron was, however, unfazed, and, determined to modernise the party and ensure more women became MPs, saw to it that Truss made it on to his controversial A-list of approved parliamentary candidates. 

In October 2009, her plain-speaking won over the local Tory association at South West Norfolk when her entanglement with Field went unmentioned. One old girl who brought it to the attention of the committee – it was all worthy of Terence Rattigan’s play Separate Tables – was eventually seen off. It was portrayed as a triumph for the Cameroon modernisers against what one newspaper called the “Turnip Taliban”, even though there were rumours CCHQ had confected the whole row to make it look like Cameron had the Tory old guard on the run.

Truss may routinely be written off by her detractors as promoted beyond her abilities but she is, for all that, the second-longest serving member of the cabinet, which she joined as environment secretary in July 2014, a record beaten only by Gove, appointed education secretary in May 2010.

The principal weapon in her armoury has always been her relentless – some would no doubt say irrational – cheeriness. Even in her notorious interview with Eddie Mair, the presenter could not understand why she was grinning as she talked about austerity. It was almost inevitable that, in 2019, she would contemplate throwing herself in to the Tory leadership election, saying at such times she had to put herself forward, as no one else was going to. In the event, she chose not to.

Her whole career has arguably been a triumph of enthusiasm over experience. Many can’t forgive her for her failure, in March 2017, when she was Lord Chancellor, to stick up for the judiciary. After the ruling in Gina Miller’s favour that there should be a parliamentary debate on Article 50, the judges found themselves described by the Daily Mail in a notorious front page as “the enemies of the people”.

A junior minister, Edward Faulks (now chairman of the press regulator IPSO) resigned from the department shortly after Truss arrived, expressing concern about her ability to stand up to the executive on behalf of the judiciary. Others in the department, including ministers and officials, were privately sceptical about her credentials, since her Oxford degree was in philosophy, politics and economics, not law.

As for the deals she has achieved, even before the latest Australia controversy, it’s the details that concern many. Labour has accused her of making a “catastrophic blunder” because manufacturers based in freeports look, as things stand, as if they will effectively be unable to access key markets on the deals she has signed off. No fewer than 23 countries the UK had signed agreements with will be affected because, say Labour, Truss had failed to remove wide-ranging “duty exemption prohibitions”, which state businesses which have not paid import duties are not permitted to benefit from reduced tariffs on exports.

Even on the vaunted Japan deal, there were criticisms that it appeared to massively benefit Japanese exporters when compared with much lower increased UK exports to Japan.

Daniel – now Lord – Hanann is predictably giving Truss covering fire, writing recently that all those moaning about her deals are embittered Remainers – “Jacobites who can’t let go” – and the ever cheerful Truss herself has assured everyone her Australia deal will be “great”. There’s talk of an imminent promotion for her in Johnson’s cabinet and her colleagues – including no doubt the prime minister himself – are treading around her warily.

Prime minister Truss is not for sure beyond the bounds of possibility, but what would she actually do if she seized the crown? A passionate Labour supporter who metamorphosed into a passionate Conservative, a Cameroon who now stands with Johnson’s praetorian guard, a Remainer who became a Leaver, Truss would ultimately seem to believe in nothing, except, perhaps, herself.

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