Analysis | Can Liz Truss Exceed Low Expectations? Thatcher Did



Liz Truss is so widely tipped to be named Britain’s next prime minister on Sept. 5 that most people have stopped paying attention to the Conservative leadership race. So let’s consider the odds she’d make an effective leader — or even a great one.

They are, to be sure, quite long. Her own record in a string of government jobs from education to the environment to trade and now foreign secretary has been unremarkable. Last week, it emerged that in her zeal for efficiency as environment secretary she cut funding for authorities to ensure water companies weren’t dumping too much sewage into rivers and seas. Guess what they’ve been doing an awful lot of?

As the leadership contest was launched, she was variously described by Tories (mostly anonymously) as odd, gaffe-prone or, at best, a poor facsimile of Margaret Thatcher. The leader a big chunk of her party seems to want is – wait for it – Boris Johnson.

Current polls say her party will be chucked out at the next election and that Keir Starmer, the Labour leader who has never exactly sent electoral pulses racing, would make the better prime minister. The economic picture is grim with soaring energy prices putting millions of households into fuel poverty and low or negative growth. The National Health Service’s annual winter crisis has come early and will only get worse; when the NHS is ailing, the government is seen to be failing.

Still, it’s worth suspending disbelief. It’s possible to tally all of those obstacles, to be deeply skeptical of some of the policies Truss outlined during her campaign (as I am) and see little in her record that marks her out for greatness. But it wouldn’t be the first time a strong or effective leader has been grossly underestimated at the start. Maybe she can rise to the occasion.

Thatcher, who had been regarded as the “token woman” in Ted Heath’s government, was considered an unexceptional minister and nearly fired. Angela Merkel’s long record may now need some revising in light of Russia’s war in Ukraine, but she was a colossus on the European stage for many years. She was also deeply underestimated and often written off early on by the political establishment and many in her own party. On the other hand, Barack Obama was compared to John F. Kennedy; greatness was expected. David Cameron, the Etonian who seemed to glide into power, was billed as the guy who would restore the Tories’ electoral prospects after three consecutive defeats and modernize conservatism.

What signs do we have that Truss might surprise on the upside? Already, she has blown away expectations of a close fight against former Chancellor Rishi Sunak. If confirmed as leader, she won’t only have defeated her opponent but neutralized him. That’s no small feat given that for a long time he was the favorite to replace Johnson.

Yes, she was pitching to a very limited audience in the campaign, but she showed discipline and canny messaging; she connected with Conservative voters in debates and hustings events and was able to correct course on the few occasions she stumbled. A good leader surrounds themselves with the right advisors, which she clearly has had.

As trade secretary she oversold a series of rollover deals, bringing on eyerolls from trade experts who endlessly pointed out these were nothing-burgers. Britain simply translated trade deals it enjoyed as part of the European Union into bilateral accords. But she got them done without drama, which is something in a government that struggled with delivery.

As foreign secretary she didn’t wobble or kowtow to Moscow. She wore Vladimir Putin’s ridicule like a badge of honor. She did better than her immediate predecessor, Dominic Raab (who was on holiday when Britain withdrew from Afghanistan) or indeed Johnson. Her attacks on the civil service, the Bank of England and, most recently, the French president carry consequences in office, but they were smart electoral politics.

Truss has pushed against wokery and once described herself as a “Destiny’s Child feminist,” saying she believes in independence for women. But her cabinet may be one of the most diverse of any prime minister. Kwasi Kwarteng is tipped to be Britain’s first Black Chancellor of the Exchequer. Others tipped for cabinet posts are James Cleverly, whose mother was from Sierra Leone, Suella Braverman, who has Indian roots, and Kemi Badenoch, a rising star in the party whose parents come from Nigeria.

Of course, Prime Minister Truss will be a departure from candidate Truss. She hates handouts but will have to write checks left and right as the cost of living crisis hits. She loves tax cuts, but she can’t afford too many. She wants the mantle of fiscal responsibility but looks set to diminish the standing of the independent Office for Budget Responsibility and balloon Britain’s borrowing. She’s lukewarm on levelling-up, a worthy but underfunded manifesto pledge, but will need to demonstrate some progress there if the Tories are to win a fifth straight election.

Her ultimate highwire act will be over Brexit, where she’s likely to trigger Article 16 of the divorce agreement over trade relations in Northern Ireland. Her gamble is that an EU struggling with gargantuan problems of its own will negotiate with a new PM who once voted to remain, where it would not with Johnson. She’ll need a “Brexit” win — forgive the oxymoron — ahead of the next election.

The six leaders profiled by Henry Kissinger in his recent book were all divisive in their time and Truss will need to be both canny and radical. Truss would need to move fast to consolidate her authority within her party and try to take action that will mark her government out for competent delivery.

“If you’d told me this woman would become prime minister, I mean no dislike of her at all, I’d have thought that was ridiculous,” the Conservative politician Ken Clarke said of Thatcher’s 1979 election victory. But Thatcher’s vision, meticulous preparation for power, relentlessness and courage ultimately saw her prevail not just in her party’s leadership race but as the defining politician of her time. Great leaders combine a certain psychological state with bold policy choices at key historical junctures.

The historical juncture is certainly here. If the race is indeed Truss’s, we can expect her to get a bounce in the polls from her election and the trappings of high office. She’ll then have the sugar-high of a party conference not long after. She’d have to play a poor hand exceptionally well if that bounce isn’t followed by a slide toward electoral defeat. But then hugely successful leaders tend to take us by surprise.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Tories Shouldn’t Write Off ‘Trussonomics’ Just Yet: Martin Ivens

• The Case for and Against Liz Truss: Adrian Wooldridge

• Stumbling Sunak Shouldn’t Pander to the Tory Base: Pankaj Mishra

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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