‘Thatcher 2.0’? Does Liz Truss have what it takes to beat Rishi Sunak in the UK PM race

Some have dubbed her “Thatcher 2.0”. After trailing in the first few rounds, Liz Truss recovered to knock out junior trade minister Penny Mo...

Some have dubbed her “Thatcher 2.0”. After trailing in the first few rounds, Liz Truss recovered to knock out junior trade minister Penny Mordaunt in the race to become the next United Kingdom prime minister.

The foreign secretary will now take on Indian-origin Rishi Sunak and face the Conservative Party’s around 2,00,000 members who will decide their new leader and Britain’s next PM on 5 September. She is ranking first in polls so far and could leave Sunak behind to become the country’s third woman premier after Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May.

Also read: Explained: Why Rishi Sunak will find it difficult to become PM despite being favourite of Tory MPs

The rise of Liz Truss

Born in Oxford, Truss spent her childhood in Scotland’s Paisley and then Leeds in north England. She went to Oxford University, where she studied philosophy, politics, and economics. Active in student politics, she was first a supporter of the Liberal Democrats before switching to the Conservative Party and now calls herself a Tory loyalist.

She worked as an accountant first but politics was her calling. After failing to make a mark in the 2001 and 2005 general elections, she was elected as a councillor in south-east London’s Greenwich in 2006. She worked as the deputy director of the right-of-centre Reform think tank, reports BBC.

After almost a decade of trying to make it to Westminister, she was elected a member of Parliament (MP) from South West Norfolk in 2010. Her rise after that has been meteoric. Two years on, she entered government as an education minister and was promoted by then PM David Cameron to environment secretary in 2014.

She was appointed justice secretary under Theresa May in 2016 and then went on to become chief secretary to the treasury, playing a crucial part in the government’s economic programme.

When Boris Johnson took over in 2019, Truss was appointed international trade secretary and last year, was elevated to the position of foreign secretary.

Changing stance on Brexit

During the 2016 referendum, Truss first was on Team Remain. In an article published in the British tabloid The Sun, she said that leaving the European Union would be “a triple tragedy – more rules, more forms and more delays” when selling to the bloc.

But she later changed her mind and spoke in favour of Brexit, saying that it would provide an opportunity to “shake up the way things work”.

Brexit negotiator and more

Interestingly, Truss was appointed by Johnson as Brexit negotiator, leading talks to resolve problems arising from provisions of the Brexit agreement covering trade with Northern Ireland. She was severely criticised by the European Union when parts of a post-Brexit deal were scrapped.

Truss played a key role in securing the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori from Iran, the two British Iranian nationals who had both been arrested and detained in the west Asian nation.

The foreign secretary rose to more prominence when she travelled to Moscow to meet her Kremlin counterpart Sergei Lavrov earlier this year, hoping to persuade Russia to pull back from the brink of the war with Ukraine. When Russia still invaded Ukraine she took a strong stand, insisting all Russian forces should be driven from the country and slapped several sanctions on the country.

However, she was slammed for backing individuals from the UK who wanted to travel to Ukraine to fight the war.

Embarrassing moments

Politicians are remembered as much for their policies as their faux pas. Truss has no dearth of them.

Her passionate speech about pork markets in 2014 turned her into a viral meme. As environment secretary, she said during a Conservative Party conference, “In December I'll be in Beijing, opening up new pork markets!” Then waiting for applause, she stood there with a self-pleasing grin. It was awkward.

She hit headlines in 2015 after going on a rant on cheese exports. She was mad that British people weren’t eating enough British cheese. “I want to see us eating more British food here in Britain… That. Is. A. Disgrace.”

The Tory leader put herself in a tight spot during an interview on LBC, when questioned on the party policy on austerity. She laughed over a question on the feeling the pinch after all the cuts and then floundered.

“I don’t know why it’s funny. A lot of people have had a terrible time with austerity,” broadcaster Eddie Mair shot back. And all Truss, who was then treasury minister, said it wasn’t a “good question” and she didn’t know what it mean, according to a report in Mirror UK.

The Thatcher influence

Truss played the rule of Thatcher in school and now she might go on to become prime minister for real. She has even forged her image in homage to the Iron Lady; some call her the “next Iron Lady”.

Liz Truss poses in a tank as she visits British troops in Estonia. Image courtesy: Simon Dawson/No 10 Downing Street

She has posed in a British Army tank in Eastern Europe, evoking an image of Thatcher during the Cold War. In a televised leadership debate this week, Britain’s top diplomat sported a pussy-bow blouse eerily similar to one the late prime minister used to wear, reports the Associated Press.

But interestingly, Truss is the daughter of a left-leaning math professor and a nurse. As a child, she went to anti-nuclear and anti-Thatcher protests, where she recalled shouting. “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie — out, out out!”

She reportedly rebelled against her parents to become Conservative.

The leadership bid

Once reduced to a figure of ridicule, Truss has now become a Tory favourite.

“I am putting myself forward because I can lead, deliver and make the tough decisions. I have a clear vision of where we need to be, and the experience and resolve to get us there,” she said in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, as she announced her leadership bid.

As her campaign faltered during the early voting rounds, she promised tax cuts worth millions of pounds. She said that if she won, she would scrap a planned rise in corporation tax and suspend green energy levies, costing more than £20bn a year, reports Guardian.

Sunak vs Truss

Truss is a Conservative Party loyalist, who stood by Johnson even after a flurry of resignations followed after Sunak stepped down.

Some in the governing party blame Sunak for triggering the rebellion against Johnson and fear that the former finance minister cannot beat the opposition Labour Party in the next election, reports Reuters.

Truss’ pugnacious approach — along with her promises to slash taxes and boost defence spending —has made her the favourite of the party's strongly Euroskeptic right wing.

Liz Truss receives applause from her team near Parliament in London, as she become one of the two finalists in an election to replace Prime Minister Boris Johnson. AP

Tim Bale, professor of politics at the Queen Mary University of London, told the Associated Press that the fact that Euroskeptics adore Truss while suspecting Sunak of pro-EU views — despite him backing “leave” in the referendum — shows the importance of image over substance in politics.

“His (Sunak’s) image doesn’t fit that of a Brexiteer whereas hers does,” Bale said.

“There's a kind of presumption that if you're a bit of a smoothie chops who moves easily in international circles you must be a remainer and if you're someone who tells it like it is to Johnny Foreigner then you're obviously a (true) Brexiteer.”

Supportive lawmakers believe that Truss can govern from day one, with a plan to revive the economy by cutting 30 billion pounds ($36 billion) in taxes.

But opponents criticise her as a dogmatist and a wooden public speaker and note that she has not always been a true-blue Tory.

Truss continues to pitch herself as the real Conservative, dismissing her opponent Sunak as a “socialist”. “Now is the time for boldness, not a business-as-usual approach,” she said.

It remains to be seen what Tory leaders believe.

With inputs from agencies

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