No One Saw Liz Truss Coming. Just As She Planned It.
'We love a bedraggled, posh man. But the spoddy, grammar school girl? We just don’t like all that hard work.'
In February, then-Foreign Secretary Liz Truss flew to Moscow on a government jet to warn Vladimir Putin not to invade Ukraine. She donned a Russian-style fur hat—just as her heroine, Margaret Thatcher, did when she visited the Russian capital 35 years ago. Truss posed for a picture on Red Square. She took part in a wreath-laying ceremony. She had a tense meeting with Sergei Lavrov, the cartoonishly nasty Russian foreign minister. And she got nowhere.
Lavrov mocked her. So did Britons back home. They called her an imbecile.
Ian Collins, the prominent television personality, said she was “stupid.” Max Hastings—former editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard—warned that Britain was in danger of becoming a “laughingstock.”
It was all rather curious, given the brazen, even smugly outlandish behavior of her immediate predecessor, Boris Johnson—who, in celebration of Team GB’s first gold in the 2012 Olympics, ziplined and got stuck; cheated on and dumped his long-suffering second wife to marry Tory communications adviser Carrie Symonds (now Johnson); said women wearing the burqa looked like mailboxes; and once quipped that business investment in Libya could start once the “dead bodies” had been cleared away.
He couldn’t stop cracking jokes, and mostly pulling them off. She couldn’t crack a good one to save her life. He made an art of looking like he’d just woken up. She was always put together.
She had built her career without advertising it—maneuvering around the corridors of power while quietly, studiously keeping her eye on the prize. Few saw her coming for 10 Downing Street.
Indeed, for pretty much everyone outside Westminster, it just didn’t make sense, this whole Liz Truss-taking-over-the-world thing. Understandably. She lacked presence, charm, charisma. She oozed head-girl vibe—hard-working, bossy, athletic (see, for example, this pic of her running on the Brooklyn Bridge). She was geeky and annoying, and she was weird, and she had a penchant for saying wince-inducing things. Case in point: In 2014, Truss, then Secretary for the Environment, proudly told the Conservative Party Conference: “In December I’ll be in Beijing, opening up new pork markets!” Baffled silence. Then: “At the moment, we import two-thirds of all of our apples, we import nine-tenths of all of our pears, we import two-thirds of our cheese. That. Is. A. Disgrace.” More bafflement, then laughter, but not the good kind.
It was an odd combination, like Thatcher but with sports bras and a capacity for alarmingly nonsensical statements. If Johnson was the most watchable, virality-making PM in British history, Truss is one of its most awkward.
But to insiders—to those who understood the machinations of the Tory Party, the party’s opaque dynamics, its culture, its tempo—it was a different matter.
She made the right connections. She struck the right chord. She was against Brexit, and then she was for it. She had played the game as well as it could be played. She had been assertive and focused, and she was numerically literate, tackling the thornier bits of quantitative policy thanks to her start as an accountant. “People consistently underestimate her—especially Boris,” an energy analyst who has known her since university said.
All of which is to say that Britain’s new prime minister—its third female leader after Thatcher and the unlucky Theresa May—is hardly an imbecile or a lightweight.
“Anyone who thinks she’s stupid is stupid,” said a former senior aide to Truss who worked closely with her for years. “Boris might have worked hard at school, but he then just coasted for the next 20 years. His time as PM is notable for winging it. He didn’t read things,” the senior aide told me. “She will read things. Her way into the world is to read things, grasp them, master them.”
“We love a bedraggled, posh man,” the aide went on, “but the spoddy, grammar school girl? We just don’t like all that hard work.” But after two years of the lazy showman—and after several years of political and economic uncertainty—maybe Liz Truss is exactly what Britain needs. The death of the queen has usurped all matters of state at present, but it won’t be long until business as usual resumes—with a vengeance. Then, all eyes will turn to the prime minister. “I expect she will try to do big things fast,” a political consultant told me. “She has no interest in being a two-year caretaker prime minister.” A journalist colleague texted: “I think she thinks stability is overrated.”
Truss was born in Oxford, and grew up in Glasgow and Leeds, attending a state school called Roundhay, which—unlike grammar and public schools—had no admissions standards. As future prime ministers often do, she studied Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at Oxford, and she forged a political career in sharp opposition to the politics of her home—which were, in her mathematician father’s case, socialist. (John Truss is said to be “appalled” by his daughter’s “conversion to extreme right-wing politics.”)
She wasn’t always a Tory. She had been a teenage environmentalist and anti-monarchist, and at university she was an avid Liberal Democrat (Britain’s centrist, pro-Europe party). She was president of the Liberal Democrat Society and vice president of the pro-Europe Oxford Reform Club. But according to those who knew her, by the end of Oxford, she had fallen in love with the free-market economics articulated by Freidrich Hayek and championed by Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
After graduation, she got a job at Shell, where she worked with a team of economists on liquified natural gas, among other things. She then moved into telecommunications at Cable & Wireless, where she crunched numbers.
But she was always obsessed with politics. She entered Parliament in 2010 as MP for South-West Norfolk. Her first big job in government, in 2012, was Education and Childcare—a role in which she devoted herself to making Britain’s ridiculously expensive childcare market more efficient and affordable. Later posts included what the Financial Times called an “uncomfortable” eleven months as Justice Secretary, followed by stints as chief secretary to the Treasury; secretary of state for International Trade (post-Brexit), and, most recently, Foreign Secretary.
Like Thatcher, Truss is rumored to stay up most nights working. And she obsesses over her image. Her year-long stint at the Foreign Office produced a tsunami of carefully curated photographs. (A review of the government’s Flickr account revealed an average of more than four-and-a-half per day.) “She’s a poser,” the former senior aide said, citing not only the Russian hat but the Thatcher-ish pussycat-bow blouses she sported on the campaign trail—and, of course, the image of her on a tank in Estonia in 2021, which recalled Thatcher straddling her own tank in West Germany in 1986.
In her tight-fitting jackets and skirts, with her blonde bob, her lack of charisma, and her somewhat disjointed, wooden speaking style, Truss is perhaps a surprising figure to be taking on Britain at its worst and most chaotic moment since the 1970s. On her desk are a broken energy market, soaring inflation, low morale, low productivity, an imploding national health system, a war, and a change of monarch.
She’s also ferociously impatient—which may be a great asset at a time when most Britons seem impatient, too. She “likes to move fast and break things,” a reporter friend told me. She is known to roll her eyes with obvious irritation in meetings. “She doesn’t have much emotional intelligence,” the former senior aide told me. “There’s something quite automaton-like about her. That term ‘lizard brain’ is what I think of: she’s immediately responsive to her best interests and her safety. If you can help her, she will smile and turn her laser beam on you. Some people think it’s charming. I just think, ‘Oh God, Liz is coming.’ She radiates something but not necessarily a nice thing, more like nuclear radiation.” The aide added: “She’s very coquettish and flirty—to both men and women.”
Nor is she about to let dogma—or ideological consistency—get in her way. Sure, “she’s probably the most libertarian prime minister we’ve ever had,” said Mark Littlewood, the head of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a free-market think tank, and a contemporary of Truss’ at Oxford. “Her philosophy is open free markets, smaller states, transfer power away from bureaucracy, get government off people’s backs.”
But unlike Thatcher, she has a people-pleasing bent that doesn’t fit neatly inside any ideological compartment. One example is her politically smart but economically baffling decision to cap energy prices at £2,500 (or $2,880) per household this year, as energy supply constricts and costs soar. The cap will cost the government nearly $173 billion, the largest intervention by any British government since World War II (excluding Covid, which cost nearly $350 billion).
“It is so entirely out of kilter with what she said she was going to do,” an energy analyst who has known Truss since their university days told me. “But it’s not out of kilter with Liz herself. One of her qualities is very shrewd political judgment as to what the public will bear.”
For now, Truss’s political base appears stable. She inherited the Conservative majority in parliament, and the public won’t have a say until the next general election—at the latest, in early 2025.
But it’s a fluid moment. The EU is wobbly, the U.S. is clawing itself to pieces, and threats to global stability abound. Strange circumstances call for strange people. “She’s a high-risk, high-gamble, potentially high-reward prime minister,” Littlewood said.
Alex Grant, a former Labor politician, recalled running against Truss in local elections in 1998 and 2002. (Truss lost both races.) “The intriguing thing about Truss,” he wrote shortly before she became leader of her party and country, “is how little I remember about her, compared to the many rivals I stood against as a councillor in SE3”—a reference to the local district. “Remarkably for someone who is now standing for party leadership, she did not seem to really want to be elected.” (Tellingly, Grant’s post is headlined “Liz Truss can be beaten. I should know. I’ve defeated her twice.”) “It was hard to dislike Truss. But it was equally hard to see her as a future MP, let alone as a credible minister or prime minister.”
And yet. As Hamlet noted, “the readiness is all.” Timing is everything. Truss waited in the wings, then pounced. That she was consistently underrated by the men in suits is on them.
Whatever happens next—that’s on her.
Zoe Strimpel’s last essay for Common Sense was about how feminism got hijacked.