AS I SEE IT: TERRY MURDEN says there is something both ordinary and intriguing about the new Prime Minister
After Boris Johnson’s fiery and theatrical exit on the steps of Downing Street, with his colourful references to a Roman leader and space hoppers, Liz Truss appeared wholly unexcited to be addressing the world’s media outside the most famous door in the land. In her speak-your-weight voice she promised to build a modern Britain, but sounded underwhelmed by this moment in history and eager to get behind her desk and see to some paperwork.
It was as if we’d just appointed as Prime Minister someone who had been on a day trip with her family to London, got lost, and was somehow mistaken for the second most important woman in Britain. With rain-lashed Downing Street forcing Number Ten staff to cover the lectern in a black bin liner, it had the appearance of the first episode in a telly comedy drama written by Alan Bennett.
Mary Elizabeth Truss is now holder of the biggest office in government and she has a plan to fix the country. Some say she’s got until Christmas to pull Britain back from the brink. Others have set a deadline of the end of this week. No wonder she was anxious to get to work.
She spent her teenage years being educated at an ordinary secondary school in Leeds, Bennett’s home town, but her family background is far from ordinary. Her father was an emeritus professor of pure mathematics while her mother was a nurse, teacher and member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Politics was in the young Liz’s genes, though her parents, being left-leaning, were not united in their support for their daughter’s early parliamentary ambitions. On learning that she intended to stand as a Conservative candidate, her mother agreed to campaign for her, while her father declined to do so.
Maybe this has defined her determination to do things her own way, even if it means some sharp changes of direction on her remarkable rise to the top. She has already ditched her early loyalty to the Liberal Democrats and her support for staying in the EU. We can only wonder what may become of her support for the legalisation of cannabis and whether the Queen googled her to discover that she once campaigned for the abolition of the monarchy.
Mrs O’Leary, as she may be known at home with husband Hugh, told us at the weekend that what you see is what you get. But there is surely more to this quiet and apparently unexcitable career politician. She has already held a couple of the biggest jobs in government. It all adds up to a more complex and intriguing personality with the tantalising prospect of delivering a few eyebrow-raising surprises, more doing than dithering, and almost certainly a few gaffes.
Despite expectations that her new Cabinet would help unite the party after a fractious election campaign, it features none of Rishi Sunak’s supporters. One controversial appointment is that of the maverick Jacob Rees-Mogg as Business Secretary. He is expected to help lead the new PM’s plans to re-start fracking for shale gas in the UK.
When, eventually, Ms Truss arrives at Bute House in Edinburgh to meet the First Lady of Scotland, there will be a flurry of bets on who will emerge triumphant. She will face the indy-campaigning, EU-supporting, fossil-fuel hating Ms Sturgeon who might just give her pals at Vogue magazine a call to ensure she’s looking her best for the next image in the selfie album. With her Lady Thatcher comparisons at the ready Ms Truss will be no pushover for the First Minister and – to borrow a phrase from her leadership rival Mr Sunak – ‘will do whatever it takes’ to keep the UK intact.
She may also wrong-foot Ms Sturgeon on taxes, given that her intention is to allow us all to keep more of what we earn. That will pose serious questions for the Scottish government which has made Scots the biggest taxpayers in the UK and is unable to borrow like its UK counterpart.
There are more problems on the horizon for Holyrood as there is talk of Ms Truss accelerating Boris Johnson’s plan to raise income tax thresholds significantly. Ms Sturgeon may find rare and surprising bedfellows among the more conservative Conservatives who fear this will unleash spending and send inflation even higher.
Initially, Ms Truss is focused on her ‘bold plan’ to make everyone feel they can get through the winter without having to sell their teeth or spend their nights riding around on the number 31 bus so that they never need to put the heating on.
It will mean spending a lot of money. Latest estimates say £130bn to £150bn. Maybe more. It may mean adding to the Treasury’s already eye-watering debt. But who’s counting? It’s just politics and there aren’t really any rules. Just ask Boris Johnson.
Terry Murden held senior positions at The Sunday Times, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and The Northern Echo and is now editor of Daily Business