Every issue, the SAIS Observer presents a World Leader Profile of someone you have probably heard of but may know little about. We start our series with Prime Minister Liz Truss of the United Kingdom, appointed by Queen Elizabeth II on September 6, 2022, a mere two days before her passing.
“I, Elizabeth Mary Truss, do swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance, to her majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs, and successors, according to law…”
Thus began her oath of office as Liz Truss took the highest-ranking public office, wearing an ornate black and gold state robe amidst a room of classic white wigs in proper British form. The twist? The year was 2016, and the office was Lord High Chancellor.
In one of the many peculiarities of the venerated but complicated British precedence order, the office of Lord Chancellor is the highest-ranking office in government, excluding royalty and the clergy. Holding a Bible in her right hand, Truss swore an oath to defend the independence of the judiciary as the first female Lord Chancellor in Britain’s history. This ranked her above Prime Minister (PM) Theresa May, her appointer.
Born in Oxford in 1975, Truss is the eldest child of four and the only daughter of a mathematics professor and nurse. She spent her secondary school years in Leeds and boarded for a year in British Columbia. At Oxford University, she was president of the school’s Liberal Democrat society and fancied some fairly radical policies, such as nuclear disarmament and the disestablishment of the monarchy. But after graduating in 1996, she changed tack and joined the Conservative Party.
In the 2000s, Truss dabbled in local elections while working in the private energy and telecommunications sectors. Shrugging off a few electoral losses and a marital scandal, she eventually won the election as a member of Parliament (MP) in 2010 to the House of Commons representing the constituency of South West Norfolk. After a few brief years as a parliamentary “backbencher,” she acquired her first ministerial role in government in 2012. In short order, she rocketed through the ranks.
A self-described “outsider,” Truss is strong-willed and unabashedly ambitious. Others are quick to describe her as a “political chameleon,” a “pragmatist,” or a “shape-shifter” whose policy views conveniently suit the situation or audience. One of her more infamous flip-flops was on Brexit, initially campaigning to remain in the European Union until the nationwide referendum indicated widespread support for withdrawal. This political stumble, along with objections from justices in her department, may have contributed to her demotion within the ministerial ranks. Then-Prime Minister May demoted her to the number two position in the Treasury in 2017. Many thought her quick burst into high government was nearing a flameout.
But loyalty is rewarded in the British Conservative Party. When Boris Johnson took over as prime minister, he restored Truss’ ministerial career. He appointed her in 2019 as the head of the Department for International Trade and then as the Foreign Secretary in 2021. These positions thrust her into the international spotlight, and with a penchant for self-promotion, she embraced the publicity as an old chap. Her freedom-loving rhetoric and congenial (if unrefined) diplomatic flair paved the way for her rise to become the United Kingdom’s fourth prime minister in six years.
The determined but sometimes awkward Liz Truss took the helm of government at a particularly dubious time — Russian war in Ukraine, rising Chinese influence, and the death of the United Kingdom’s illustrious and beloved monarch. But the primary political issue today, as often is the case, is the British economy. Though the party has held power for over a decade, economic woes and debate around Brexit have felled all Conservative prime ministers since. David Cameron, Theresa May, and now Boris Johnson have all resigned over Brexit or post-Brexit economic issues. Truss hopes to succeed where they failed.
The afternoon tea leaves do not bode well. As if she consulted U.S. former President Donald Trump himself, Truss introduced a “mini-budget” with the most substantial tax cuts to the wealthy in half a century. Markets reeled, the pound plunged to historic lows, and even her free-market-loving Tories couldn’t handle the codswallop. The popularity of the Conservatives in the polls plummeted. Shortly after Truss’ appointment, the Labour Party had a 10-point advantage over the Tories due to disapproval of PM Johnson — after her budget announcement, that gap increased to 22 points. The ensuing revolt within her party caused many to openly question Truss’ leadership status after just one tumultuous month in office.
In true Truss-ian form, the prime minister reversed course on the tax cuts to stave off a political coup, not without significantly damaging her reputation among the members of Parliament. Her challenge now is to convince the MPs that she can lead the party through her pro-growth agenda at a time when she and her party have the lowest approval ratings since taking power in 2010. Truss must now surmount heavy opposition from the left with only skeptical support from the right. While her future as a leader looks bleak now, no one should underestimate her ability to shift her policies to win over support. An energetic and deft politician, Truss will likely do whatever she can to avoid being snookered.
Old Chap – an old friend
Tory – a member of or someone ideologically aligned with the Conservative Party.
Codswallop – a load of rubbish, something that is clearly nonsense.
Snookered – being in a situation from which you can see no apparent escape