‘Get some boomerangs,’ Liz Truss says to her aides. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury isn’t looking for something to throw — she is referring to the short videos on Instagram for which she is becoming famous. She has carved out a reputation in Tory circles for her love of social media, which she uses to poke fun at friends, rivals and herself while promoting her upbeat brand of liberal, free-market conservatism: what she calls ‘Tories with attitude’. If a battle is to be fought for the soul of the Tory party, it’s one she intends to join.
Once described as a Cameron cutie, Truss has been on a journey since first entering government seven years ago. She was known as ‘Miss Dynamite’ when she worked as an education minister under Michael Gove, followed by a spell as Defra secretary and a testing stint as Justice Secretary. Now as deputy to the Chancellor, she has started to establish herself as one of the most articulate advocates of what she regards as a Tory revolution. ‘Every generation wants their own version of freedom fighters,’ she once said. ‘This generation are Uber-riding, Airbnb-ing, Deliveroo-eating freedom fighters.’
Truss sees the digital upstarts as the new heroes of radical conservatism. To her list, we can now add Boohoo, one of Britain’s fastest-growing online fashion retailers, in whose Manchester headquarters we meet. A sign saying #DoYourThing emblazons the wall: is this her approach to politics? ‘Yes’ comes the reply. ‘I think there’s a danger in politics of being too risk-averse. I’ve fallen into that trap in the past and I’m not going to fall into it again. I’m now more honest about what I think.’
Truss doesn’t mince words about how her party needs to change. ‘There is a debate on about the future of the Conservative party,’ she says. ‘It is always hard for a party to rejuvenate itself in office but the fact is the last time we had that debate was when the modernisation process took place under David Cameron.’ And over the past decade, she says, much has changed. ‘We’re in a very different world now, the post-Brexit world. A similar size of reflection is needed to be able to reach out to people in the future.’ With a leadership contest expected this year, Truss hopes it doesn’t just become ‘a personality contest’: ‘This time we need to make sure there is a proper debate about ideas’.
Her introduction to politics was unusual for a Conservative. She used to accompany her left-wing mother to nuclear disarmament marches before joining the Conservatives in her early twenties. ‘I was interested in the ideas — freedom, free speech and having control of my own life. That’s why I became a Tory,’ she says. ‘I didn’t become a Tory just to become part of a managerial group who wanted to run the country… I want to see popular free-market Conservatism where barriers are broken down, people have got more opportunities but keep more of their own money.’
Taking inspiration from the venue for the interview – filled with racks of neon clothes and twenty-somethings chatting animatedly – Truss says she wants to put the fun back into the Conservative party. ‘We’ve been around the main building here and people are enjoying working here and I think one thing the Conservative party needs to be is positive about where we are now, positive about the Britain we’re living in. We need to look like we’re enjoying ourselves because no one wants to go to a party where everyone is looking miserable.’
Most Boohoo customers are aged 18 to 30 — the group least likely to vote Tory. Lack of support among the young is the party’s biggest problem. So, what to do? ‘Well, one policy that appeals to young people is cutting taxes. They want to control their own money, they want to control their own lives.’ Truss sees housing as the ‘number one policy issue’ and blames ‘Nimby pressure’ for the UK’s ‘antiquated planning system’ which means a shortage of affordable accommodation. ‘In London the average person is paying 50 per cent of their income on rent. Just think how much better off people would feel if that number was a lot lower.’ In order to turn things around, Truss thinks planning regulation needs to change. ‘I think one of the things we should consider is allowing cities, counties, to operate their own planning policy,’ she says. ‘I think those are the kinds of things, if we start moving the dial on, that can really attract younger voters.’
As Chief Secretary to the Treasury, it’s her job to decide how government will spend other people’s money: the next spending review is expected in November. She wants it to be radical. ‘We’ve got to shake things up. Make it easier for new entrants in all kinds of markets — whether it’s energy and utilities, housebuilding or Uber and other new forms of taxi. We need to be championing the new entrants, because those are the people who deliver economic growth. Economic growth doesn’t tend to come from protecting big business — it comes from allowing new ideas to succeed.’
She’s one of many Tories who view the rise of the digital world as a trailblazer for Conservative arguments. The internet offers near-infinite choice: of music, books, films, holidays. She can’t see why a generation raised on such abundance shouldn’t be keen on the free market that brought it to them.
Her hope is that the liberty-loving generation that goes to Boohoo for a £15 bodycon dress or a £12 shirt might then vote Tory, to preserve such freedoms and acquire more of them. ‘I think it’s great that people have access to new things they can buy, 24 hours a day. Dreams and desires can be fulfilled, that’s what a market’s about,’ she says. And if the high street suffers (as Debenhams has this week), then she’s philosophical. ‘I see the high street developing in new and different ways. My local high street has more pubs, coffee bars, gyms but not as many clothes shops as it used to. You have to allow the economy — and society — to develop in a bottom-up way. You can’t sit there in Whitehall and say: this is our plan for how people should be buying things.’ Truss is sceptical of the idea of taxing online retailers more to level the playing field. ‘The way Britain is going to be successful and has been successful in the past is by opening up to new entrants and not by adopting protectionist policies to stop them.’
A manifesto for young professionals, perhaps, but what about parts of the country where Uber doesn’t collect and Deliveroo doesn’t deliver? ‘We need to aim at the rural Britain, industrial Britain,’ she says. ‘We won seats like North East Derbyshire and Middlesbrough at the last election, and I think we can win more seats like that. I was in Bolton last week and people said they want to see lower taxes and better journeys to work. Very much a Conservative agenda.’ To help these areas, she’d like them to have more powers to make their own decisions on planning and — potentially — income tax rates, as has been granted to Scotland. ‘There is a lot of evidence that by devolving tax-raising powers you help boost economic growth’. Would she like to see this extended to English towns? ‘I think it’s an interesting proposal.’
Many Tories talk about extra spending needed — from schools to the military. Does she really think that there is room for tax cuts now? ‘Yes! Yes!’ she says, enthusiastically. ‘It’s a choice. We’ve got that choice. I think there are areas of government spending. Take for example the £34 billion we spend on housing support and housing benefit — basically to deal with a planning system that doesn’t work. That could be reduced if you opened up planning more.’
Might she be tempted to save money by abolishing HS2? Truss has previously hinted the troubled £56 billion high-speed rail project could face the axe as part of a review of ‘all major investment projects across government’. Today she confirms the project will feature in the review. Asked if she would scrap HS2, Truss replies: ‘That’s a matter for the zero-based capital review that I’ll be looking at very intently’. Truss intends to weed out projects that are failing or over-budget. ‘What really drives local economies is transport around counties. Transport into cities. That’s what makes a difference to why a business decides to locate somewhere. We have to be rigorous about what infrastructure is going to maximise opportunities for people.’ This doesn’t sound like a manifesto for keeping HS2.
But if the Tories let Brexit drag on forever, they might never be forgiven by any voters. This is a point Truss made last week when ministers gathered for a seven-hour cabinet meeting. She was one of the ministers most against the plan to enter talks with Jeremy Corbyn and spoke in defence of a no-deal Brexit. She argued for an impact assessment report into the risks of remaining in the EU.
She won’t discuss what was said in cabinet, but she does warn of the risks of failing to fulfil promises. ‘The point I would make about economic impact assessments is that no one can predict the future. Some people go around saying there are facts about the future. There aren’t,’ she says. As for Brexit, ‘There’s a cost of delay, of not making a decision. Quite often you will see analysis from all kinds of external bodies that will assess the cost of a decision in isolation but won’t look at the cost of not doing it.’ As for entering a long Article 50 extension? ‘Just more limbo.’
Were she prime minister for the day, she says her first act would be to build a million homes (‘Only 11 per cent of England is built on,’ she says). But in No. 10, would she be prepared to tone down her Instagram? ‘I’m not thinking about those things at the moment,’ she says — before going on: ‘The barriers have been broken down between politicians and the public. You just have to be what you are actually like and people can take it or leave it.’ Her social media tip for cabinet colleagues? ‘Post first, think later.’ And, presumably, see where it will all lead.
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