Liz Truss does not have what it takes to be prime minister, and Liz Truss is going to be prime minister. Those are two things I heard Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart agree on in their The Rest Is Politics podcast the other day. It was a discussion that reminded me forcibly of my own limited but very illuminating experience of dealing with Truss.
As we have seen with Boris Johnson – to his detriment – character ultimately does matter in any position of leadership. What happened the only time Liz Truss and I were in close proximity makes me worry about hers.
It should not really have been the only time I met her. In February 2015, I was director general of The Tree Council, a UK charity launched in 1973. Truss was then environment secretary. Her two very different predecessors, Caroline Spelman and Owen Paterson, had been assiduous and unfailingly polite in their dealings with me.
Back in May 2010, David Cameron’s coalition government had announced the launch of a national tree planting campaign. I had seized the lead in developing the original concept that resulted in the target of planting a million trees in urban settings, bringing together the partners and designing the delivery strategy for what became the Big Tree Plant campaign. As a result, I was invited to chair the cross-sector committee charged with ensuring its success and the programme was duly launched in December 2010.
Both Caroline Spelman and Owen Paterson took a lively interest in tree matters generally, understanding their importance to broader environmental objectives, and in the progress of the campaign in particular. As chair, but also in my capacity as tree health lead on Defra’s Civil Society Advisory Group, I regularly met and reported back to each of them.
Liz Truss could not have been more different. Despite taking up her post seven months before the Big Tree Plant completion date, when projected planting was on target to exceed aspirations, she had no interest in meeting, and declined all opportunities to be personally briefed on the background, progress or milestones reached. She showed no interest in receiving reports, although it was one of the successes of that administration.
Of course, I understand that secretaries of state have a lot on their agenda, and have to prioritise. But it was strange that something which seemed to be a priority for her predecessors, as it was for the then prime minister David Cameron, suddenly went to the bottom of her inbox. I sensed a “not invented here” outlook: she had been appointed so near to its attainment so perhaps felt no ownership of the programme and was happy for me to see it through to completion whilst she introduced her own fresh initiatives.
So our one face-to-face meeting came on the day that the millionth tree was finally planted, at a park in Bristol, on February 5, 2015. Clearly, someone inside government told her she couldn’t say No to that one. National and regional media would be in attendance. Local schoolchildren would help with the planting. A nice day. Nice pictures. The celebration of a government success story. Target set. Target met. What was not to like?
This was to be the first time we were in the same place together and an opportunity for us to be introduced. I anticipated that we would now be able to celebrate success together. Yet it quickly became apparent to me that Liz Truss is someone who likes to take credit for work that is not hers, and shun those whose work it actually is. I see that as the worst quality a leader can have.
As I’ve mentioned, she had made no previous attempt to engage with me or the steering group and the civil servant delegated to support the event was clearly embarrassed by this omission. “Oh, you must come and meet her,” he said, guiding me to where she was standing talking to a member of the public. Truss showed no sign of recognition that we were there. Fair enough. I was brought up not to interrupt other folks’ conversations, so stood quietly to her side, awaiting a moment to introduce myself. Eventually, the civil servant wandered off to attend to other duties and left me there.
Once that exchange ended, I looked directly at her, smiling and opening my mouth to draw breath in readiness for a momentous exchange. But no! it was still not to be. Her mouth turned down, her brow furrowed and her eyes slid across me. Turning on her heel, she swept away before I could even begin to speak: she had been forced into an unlooked-for encounter and wasted no time in escaping. I can assure you it is not mere vanity that felt a genuine shock that she was so rude and dismissive, or that she said literally not a word about the hard work I and my team had put into making this pledge, unlike so many others made by government, become a reality.
She appeared to have two main interests; to take the credit, and to get nice pictures with the happy and attractive primary school children wielding spades.
Given I am used to most people behaving nicely towards each other, I found her rudeness on the day breathtaking. Though I was also asked to speak at the event, she quite literally ignored me, instead focusing all her attentions on the media, the then-mayor of Bristol George Ferguson and Sir Harry Studholme, acting chair of the Forestry Commission. Her disdain for the contribution of the cross-sector steering group that I had led, and which had been fundamental to the delivery of the target, could not have been clearer.
Her rudeness was such that I allowed myself a mild feeling of satisfaction that her formal speech elicited boos from protestors who were present, whilst mine was warmly received, though I suspect that plunged me further into the Truss deep freeze.
When the time came to plant the tree, our closeness in the photographs gave the appearance of us being on excellent terms. But there was no connection whatever, no small talk, no sense of teamwork, no desire to be anything other than the centre of attention. When later I read Dominic Cummings saying of her that “the eyes had a thousand-yard stare”, I knew I’d had personal experience of it.
Had Caroline Spelman or Owen Paterson still been in post, I am pretty sure that there would have been genuinely warm words, genuine warmth in the photos, and perhaps a formal note of thanks later, to paste in the Tree Council scrapbook, or post on the website. There was none of that from Liz Truss.
I still don’t know what might have sparked her animosity, though I suspect it is as simple as this: my being there was a reminder that she couldn’t really take personal recognition for the achievements – though it didn’t stop her trying. Of course, getting a warmer response than she did from the audience can’t have done me any favours either.
In both her actions and inactions, she displayed neither the character nor the empathetic qualities and basic good manners that we should reasonably expect from anyone in public service. My impression of her was formed from this first and only meeting and I have seen nothing since, as her public profile has grown, to suggest that it was unfounded.
In the words of the Bard of Salford, the good Doctor himself, John Cooper Clarke, “…always judge a book by its cover.” I have seen the cover, and fear that what lies inside could be even worse.