The rise and fall of Liz Truss - Britain's shortest serving Prime Minister

31/10/2022

As the Sunak administration promises a return to "boring", Aidan Riley looks back at Liz Truss's tumultuous time in office

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Image by Simon Dawson

By Aidan Riley

Déjà vu. Just three weeks ago, I was at my desk writing a piece for this very paper about the legacy of the then most recent ex-Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. I didn’t expect to be writing another ‘legacy of’ article within the same month, yet here we are, following the humiliating resignation of Liz Truss a mere 45 days into her premiership. It’s tough to find a lot to say about the legacy of Truss. She enjoyed the shortest, and quite possibly worst, stint of any British Prime Minister in history, inflicting enormous damage to the UK economy, as well as decimating her party's hopes of forming a government in the wake of the next general election. Truss styled herself in the shadow of Margaret Thatcher, as the lady not for turning, but turn and turn she did through the maze of political turmoil, walls closing in around her, until she reached an inescapable dead-end. The U-turns were so chronic, that when Ms Truss stood at the dispatch box on Wednesday afternoon and declared, ‘’I’m a fighter not a quitter,’’ the resignation speech was practically writing itself.

If Truss is to be believed, she had a rather tough upbringing, at least when considered alongside the majority of her Conservative party colleagues. She claims to have grown up in “the heart of the red wall” and attended a school, Roundhay, in a northern Leeds suburb, which she claims caused children to be “let down." Truss’s childhood constituency, Leeds North East, was in fact not a red wall seat, but voted Conservative from 1955 through to 1997, well after she had left Leeds. Moreover, her comments about Roundhay school have been the subject of much dispute and criticism from fellow attendees. One alumni described them as "particularly disrespectful to a brilliant team of teachers" and went on to say that "far from being a school that ‘failed’ students, Roundhay was and still is a great source of pride.”

Her politics at university have been well documented: she was the president of the Oxford University Liberal Democrats, famously delivering a speech calling for the abolition of the monarchy, as well as campaigning for the legalisation of marijuana. Such positions are a far cry from those of traditional conservatism. She is even believed to have marched against the Thatcher government. Only 25 years later she would be modelling herself in Thatcher’s image, stylised as the Iron Lady reborn. It is rather difficult to grasp exactly what she believes in. Truss is a political chameleon, everchanging to blend in with what is most convenient and appropriate for the time.

Truss’s Conservative conversion came in 1996, before standing in the 2001 general election, contesting, and failing to win, the safe Labour seat of Hemsworth. In 2005 she was given a far better chance, contesting the Calder Valley constituency, but once again failed to win. Finally, though, in 2010 Truss won the South West Norfolk seat, a victory that coincided with the Tories returning to power after 13 years of Labour governance. Her rise after this was little short of remarkable, thanks largely to finding herself on then Prime Minister David Cameron’s A-List of MP’s.

Once in parliament though, Truss quickly climbed the ministerial ladder. First promoted by Cameron in 2012, Truss would enter cabinet just two years later, serving as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It was in this role that Truss gave the now infamous Conservative Party Conference speech, awkwardly exclaiming, “we import two thirds of our cheese. That. Is. A. Disgrace!" Though Truss’s politics may have almost entirely transformed from her university days, the gawky, geeky, and awkward teenager took a long time to dissipate from her public speaking, if it ever really did.

Round the cabinet table Truss would remain though, serving continually until she left 10 Downing Street, making her one of the most experienced names in the leadership contest following Boris Johnson’s resignation. And in the contest, which lasted longer than her premiership, Truss thrived. She appealed to the Conservative members with her firm, traditionally conservative stance, standing as the antithesis to the fiscally responsible Rishi Sunak. The ‘darling of the right’ won reasonably comfortably, though not by as substantial a landslide as many commentators had expected.

Just two days after the commencement of Truss’s premiership, Her Majesty the Queen died, meaning parliament was suspended for ten days. Once she was able to get going though, Truss, with her loyal ally and chancellor Kwasi Karteng alongside her, moved fast… frighteningly fast. The chancellor seemed to slash taxes almost aimlessly, shaving £45bn from the government’s revenue, with no clear plan to plug the hole. When considered alongside the government’s measures to help ease energy bills, it is little surprise the markets reacted the way they did. Trussonomics, and her “true Tory budget” as described by the Daily Mail was practically dead as soon as it was delivered. As the Economist quite correctly observed on 28 September, Liz Truss’s government was already dead in the water.

In an act of abhorrently embarrassing desperation, Kwarteng was sacked and replaced by Jeremy Hunt, who had previously backed Sunak in the leadership contest. In all but formality, Truss was no longer in power. Hunt scrapped almost the entirety of Truss and Kwarteng’s tax-cutting budget, undoing the commitments that Conservative party members had elected Truss on. Five days later came the ironic “I’m a fighter not a quitter” line. Another 24 hours and Truss was out of a job. If Johnson was the Prime Minister who incessantly lied, Truss was the Prime Minister who incessantly turned. Following her victory in the leadership election over Sunak, Truss mistakenly tweeted “I’m ready to hit the ground from day one.” On this, at least, the lady was not for turning.

One of the most telling and revealing anecdotes about Truss comes from none other than her younger brother, Francis. He tells of her uber-competitive behaviour around board games as children: “she had to win. She would create some special system on how to win and then if she was losing, she might disappear rather than lose.” Such was the political climate though in the wake of Truss’s calamitous mini budget, not even she who “had to win” could turn the game in her favour. No more roles of the dice. It’s game over for Liz Truss.