Saturday 23 July 2022

Liz Truss: I'm the insurgent candidate in the Tory leadership race

Telegraph interview with Liz Truss, in which self-styled "straight-talking Yorkshirewoman" and Minford groupie Liz parrots her clichés and reviews everything where she dare not give detail.

It is thin pickings - "I'm right on everything but you don't know what that is" - and the tone is both disturbing and cloying. Read on to be unenlightened.

Unlike Rishi Sunak, the moment Liz Truss found out she had made the final two in the race to be the next prime minister was not captured on camera and released. But by the sounds of it, the celebrations were no less restrained than her rival's fist pump and cheer.

"I yelped with delight," recalled the Foreign Secretary, looking back to 4pm on Wednesday. "There was lots of hugging and back-slapping." Someone opened the chilled white wine. A celebratory photograph of the team was taken. Then more cheer on the House of Commons terrace.

By Ms Truss's side were her daughters: Frances, 16, and Liberty, 13. Unusually for a political campaign, both children have been joining their mother at her headquarters to help make her the country's most powerful politician - some summer holiday project.

"My oldest daughter's working on the digital team," Ms Truss said. "She's done a computing GCSE so she's helping out on that. And my younger daughter was there as well, giving general political advice."

The family - Frances, Liberty and Ms Truss's husband Hugh, 48 - had been planning to go to Disneyland Florida this summer. Three times, the trip had been postponed as the Covid-19 pandemic dominated. The others are still going, but for Ms Truss it is fourth time unlucky.

Meeting The Telegraph for her first newspaper interview since reaching the second phase of the leadership contest, Ms Truss, 46, still seems on a high from making the final two, who now face a summer campaign before Tory members decide.

Already the result is fading, but it is worth remembering just how much of a close-run thing it was. Penny Mordaunt, the trade minister, had been in second place for all the opening four ballots, positioned to join Mr Sunak above the ultimate cut-off point. A defeat loomed.

Ms Truss only took second place on the final ballot by getting eight votes more than Ms Mordaunt, out of an electorate of 358 Tory MPs. Put another way - if five MPs had switched from the Foreign Secretary to Ms Mordaunt, she would have been knocked out.

But they didn't, and it is a beaming Ms Truss who greets The Telegraph on the first floor of her homely campaign headquarters in a plush residential street near Parliament. The exhaustion that the rollercoaster last fortnight must have brought is not evident. "Adrenaline," Ms Truss explained.

The building is just a stone's throw away from the headquarters of the man who now stands between her and Number 10. Ms Truss is planning to brief the press like Mr Sunak did a few days earlier, but won't be handing out branded sun cream ("guaranteed protection against Labour") like her rival's camp.

"Only blood, sweat and tears on my campaign", she joked.

For the first half of this race, Ms Truss has been the underdog. It is Mr Sunak, the former chancellor, who was first on every MP vote. But those roles have reversed, according to the bookmakers - and Mr Sunak himself.

It is a framing that Ms Truss counters. "I see myself as an insurgent because I want to change things," she said. It is an eye-catching word choice. So is Mr Sunak the establishment candidate?

"I'm not commenting on the other candidate in the race. I'm putting forward a positive agenda. But we do need things to change," she said.

"We have had low growth for two decades. We now face a massive global economic shock after Covid and with the war in Ukraine. And this is a pivotal moment for our country. Do we continue with business as usual? Or do we do things differently, be bold?

"I want to do things differently and be bold so that we become a high growth, high productivity, powerhouse."

The stance is in some ways curious. Ms Truss has been MP for 12 years, representing South West Norfolk, compared to Mr Sunak's seven years. She was in the Cabinet before her rival even entered Parliament and has held five Cabinet briefs, compared to his two.

And yet it is Mr Sunak who is being framed as the "business as usual" candidate. In a race defined so far by economic policy differences, Mr Sunak is promising to continue the tax and spend trajectory which he set in the Government.

Ms Truss has pledged more than £30 billion in tax cuts, all paid for with more borrowing - yet denies it would fuel inflation. She has also widened out her attack on the status quo, railing against Whitehall's approach in the last 20 years.

Is it all too good to be believed? Mr Sunak has argued so, dubbing the idea you can slash taxes and somehow control inflation a "fairytale" which will damage trust among the electorate, as it would be undeliverable.

So does Ms Truss actually have a plan to bring down inflation? "Inflation is forecast to come down next year," she said. But the forecasts keep being wrong? "Well, some forecasts are wrong," she fired back - which sounds like a dig at the Bank of England, though the target is not named.

She went on: "I believe it is right that inflation will come down because inflation was caused by a global supply shock. But it was exacerbated by monetary policy. What I have said is in the future I'm going to look at the Bank of England's mandate. It is set by the Treasury. It was last set by Gordon Brown in 1997."

It is a line Ms Truss has said before. So what, actually, would she change about the mandate? "What I want to do is look at best practice from central banks around the world, look at their mandates, and make sure we have a tight enough focus on the money supply and on inflation."

So change the mandate for the independent Bank of England to do less quantitative easing - ie, printing money? "Well, I'm not going to say," she said. "What I want to do is conduct a review of that mandate. But I will look at and the chancellor will look at what the best practice mandate looks like."

Ms Truss's position on tax cuts and their relative merits has been well aired this week. Less so her stance on spending. She told reporters in a press briefing on Thursday that she was not considering spending cuts.

But that would mean keeping public spending rising to its highest level in 50 years, a part of Mr Sunak's legacy that Truss backers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit minister, have used to dub him a "socialist chancellor"?

Pushed for more details, Ms Truss said she would hold a spending review alongside an emergency budget if she wins. But she played down the possibility of reducing departmental spending, which has been set to 2024.

She does suggest welfare spending is one area savings could be found, however. "The best way to get welfare spending down is to help people get into work, and that is my priority," she said.

"We do have people who are not currently in work. We've also got a huge number of vacancies and a huge demand for staff. So we need to get the skills right, get the training right, help people into work, encourage people into work, give them the support they need to get into work. That's the way we get the welfare budget down. But those things take time."

One Boris Johnson spending promise she is keeping is the £36 billion extra he put into the NHS and social care, even while reversing the instrument for raising the money - the 1.25 per cent increase in National Insurance which kicked in this April.

It remains unclear when the money, initially given to the NHS, will move across to help fund the new social care approach of capping lifetime costs. Many commentators and Tory MPs expect taking away the money from the NHS, as planned, will never happen.

But Ms Truss is resolute that the money should switch over. "I want it to go into social care. I think that is very, very important," she said. "And in fact, by putting it into social care, we help relieve the pressure on the NHS. Because what we have is people who are currently, regrettably, stuck in hospital because there aren't the social care places available. So it's very important that we put it into social care."

Whether she would also stump up the money to keep the NHS budget at its current level when that happens is unclear.

Another area where Ms Truss is framing herself as more radical than Mr Sunak is building on Brexit.

Her Remainer status - she voted to stay in the EU in the 2016 referendum, unlike Mr Sunak - is seen as an Achilles heel by her political opponents.

But will that prove as politically disadvantageous as some hope? She points to securing trade deals and pushing the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill through the Commons to back up her argument about "delivery", and has some prominent Brexiteers on her side.

On Saturday, Ms Truss will announce that all EU legislation transposed onto the UK statute books will be given a "sunset" clause by the end of 2023 - meaning a decision will be taken on whether to keep, amend or scrap around 2,400 laws by then. Mr Sunak has made a similar promise.

Could the audit really be done in less than a year and a half? "I'm a great believer in deadlines, because that's what motivates people to get things done," she said. "It's already been six years since people voted to leave the European Union. We've still got these laws on our statute books and they're holding us back."

There are similarities between the candidates in another policy area too, if Ms Truss is to be believed.

Mr Sunak this week claimed credit for stopping a national lockdown during the surge of the omicron variant of Covid-19 before last Christmas. It was hours away from being announced at a press conference, the former chancellor claimed.

So did she privately urge against lockdowns during the pandemic? "I've been pretty much against the lockdowns and wanting them to be as short as possible," Ms Truss said. "I think it was a mistake for us to close schools. I think it's had a huge impact on children."

But some have suggested she was on the more supportive end of the Cabinet debate? "I never spoke out in favour of a lockdown," she said, referring to private Cabinet meetings - although she made clear that she backed the early restrictions when Covid struck.

Ms Truss said she was "very concerned" about the proposed lockdown during the omicron wave - like Mr Sunak - but will not be drawn on whether she opposed the one imposed in late 2020.

"I will have to sort of review my records to see. But in general I have been pro ending lockdowns as early as possible and I have been pro opening up more countries on the green list," she said.

Away from policy, the reality of running for leader is beginning to set in.

In modern politics, communication can shape success as much as substance and critics have accused Ms Truss of scoring poorly on that test. To boil down one common criticism, her public delivery is judged by some politicos to be too wooden.

How would she counter the suggestion she does not have the charisma to win the Tories a general election? "I'm not the slickest presenter. I completely admit that," she said, appearing to have thought through how to counter the charge.

"But I am somebody who what you see is what you get. I'm a straight-talking Yorkshirewoman. I don't take no for an answer and people understand that about me. I absolutely believe that with the vision that I've set out, with the delivery I've shown I can do from day one in Downing Street that I can win the next election, I can beat Keir Starmer."

There was time for a few quick denials. Ms Truss would not bite when asked if she will appoint Lord Frost, the former Brexit minister now backing her campaign, as chancellor.

"I'm not speculating about any Cabinet jobs," she replied. So you have not promised anyone Cabinet jobs? "No I haven't." Really? "No" - a double categorical denial.

Similarly, Ms Truss suggested that the current Prime Minister is not cheering her on, despite his apparent cold fury at Mr Sunak's resignation, which triggered the ministerial stampede that brought him down.

She has not talked to Mr Johnson since she made the final two. "He is not backing any candidate," she added.

For the Truss family, this will be a strange summer. Ms Truss has been around politics for more than a decade but has only headed up a great office of state for less than a year.

Even in the last fortnight, there has been an apparent jump in her public profile, with more hollers of recognition on the street and requests for selfies.

Does the family know what is coming? "I think there's a dawning realisation that this is real," Ms Truss said. "I think my daughter's friends at school are quite amazed by what's happening. Hugh is very, very supportive of what I do in politics. In fact, we met at the 1997 Conservative Party conference. He's a true blue. But I think it's all happened quite suddenly."

The family would move into Downing Street if she wins, she said. Her husband is an accountant and, according to Ms Truss, will not seek the limelight. "He doesn't want to have a sort of massive public role, I think it's fair to say," she said. "He goes out campaigning for the Conservative Party. He's very active as a local Conservative member. But he's a very stoic person."

For her daughters, the world of politics feels a natural fit. As the interview wrapped up, Ms Truss introduced The Telegraph to Frances and Liberty. The teenagers rush across from a corner of the campaign headquarters to greet their mother.

"I'm doing an audit of all your past departments," Frances, the elder sister, declared. So which was her favourite? The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, she said, because of the tea ladies. "They gave us orange juice and lots of KitKats".

The girls have made one other request of their mother - that they can hold sleepovers if they do make it to Number 10. So did she say yes?

Ms Truss's message to her daughters is the same to her campaign staff and the bookies' predicting she will be the next prime minister: "Don't get ahead of yourself."


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