In the dying days of Theresa May’s benighted premiership I spotted a long-serving Tory MP on the same weekend train as me, a few rows down. This old whips office hand had naturally bagged a table of four for himself and spread out documents and newspapers across it to deter all-comers. But he seemed most focused on a smaller piece of writing paper on which he periodically scrawled a note. After a few minutes he got up and headed to the buffet car so I did what most of those trained in my trade would have done in the circumstances and sauntered past his vacated table to take a sneaky look. The notepaper was his own House of Commons headed variety and contained a list of about 20 Tory MPs. At the top was one name underlined twice: Liz Truss.
A couple of weeks later Ms Truss caused a media stir by letting it be known that she was minded to stand in the leadership contest to replace Mrs May. But a few days after that she withdrew – presumably on account of there being in the event nothing like the 20 names willing to support her that her ally had hopefully jotted down.
Instead, she became one of the first Cabinet ministers openly to endorse Boris Johnson, and after his sweeping victory was rewarded with the post of International Trade Secretary. Some commentators saw the episode as evidence of her innate cunning – she had made sure she was talked about as a contender and then backed the winner. Others felt she had egg on her face and had a good chortle at her expense.
At the end of a week in which she was promoted to Foreign Secretary, the case for taking the South West Norfolk MP a lot more seriously has gathered further momentum.
While Radio Four’s Dead Ringers betrays her as a cheerful airhead – ‘I know!!!’ – and others have mocked her for observations about cheese imports and pork markets made while she was at Defra, it is surely no accident that this month marks her ninth anniversary in ministerial office. Of the current Cabinet only her Norfolk neighbour Brandon Lewis can match that length of unbroken front bench service.
Her two years as Trade Secretary underlined her ability to generate positive headlines, with every trade deal agreed with another country – even those that were just rolled over from EU days – being presented as a magnificent triumph for dynamic global Britain.
Being at the cutting edge of free trade also suited Ms Truss’s own ideological leanings as she swiftly located the sweet spot of a Tory activist base long starved of unabashed championing of free enterprise, tax cuts and rolling back the frontiers of the state.
Where other Cabinet ministers have floundered, the ratings of Ms Truss in the monthly survey run by the Conservative Home website have just kept going up. September’s results gave her a net satisfaction rating of +85.2, far ahead even of the golden boy Chancellor Rishi Sunak, whose +74.5 seemed almost mediocre by comparison.
When next there is a vacancy for the Tory crown it is now obvious that Truss will be a serious player with many more than 20 MPs in her corner from the start.
For canny Boris Johnson she is no doubt most welcome as a counter-balance to Sunak – someone for the Chancellor to fret about for a change. But occupying a great office of state is a major step up in class from the mid-ranking Cabinet roles Truss has so far carried out.
While Sunak has made the step with aplomb, might Truss simply lack the intellectual authority or be too shrill to do the job well? That’s quite possible. It is also difficult to see this ardent Thatcherite appealing to many of the Red Wall voters who now form an indispensable part of any winning Conservative electoral coalition. That is something many pragmatists in the Tory parliamentary party and grassroots associations too will take into account come the next leadership contest.
But you have to be in it to win it and her self-belief is second to none. While pork markets may have them tittering at the back, betting markets now make her joint second favourite alongside Michael Gove.
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