Out of the Blue
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
A review of the Liz Truss biography by Harry Cole and Richard Heale
A shorter version of this article was published in the Sunday Island on November 6 2022
The Life of Truss
When Liz Truss sacked her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, she held a press conference in which she gave an even more inept performance than usual in attempting to justify the U-turn (now called volte face) she had been forced to make after his “mini-budget” had come close to wrecking the British economy. The Prime Minister took a meagre four questions which she failed to answer and then ran away. The whole thing took about eight minutes.
One of the chosen was a portly fellow who asked a brutal question. “If you and the Chancellor were ‘in lockstep’ and concocted these plans together, often in secret, why has he gone and you are still here.”
The burly journalist was Harry Cole, political editor of the Sun, a Murdoch Paper which normally supports the Conservatives. It transpired that Cole, together with James Heale of the Spectator (another right wing organ) was writing a biography of Truss. The book was due to come out on December 8 but Cole said on Times Radio (a Murdoch channel) “the ending is being rewritten by those wonderful people at Harper-Collins” (a publishing house owned by Murdoch). In reality, the book was published on November 1 after substantial extracts unfavourable to Truss and the Tory Party were published in the Times (a Murdoch paper). At her last PMQs, Truss was asked by the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, “We are told, ‘out by Christmas’. Is that the book or you?”
Cole has written for publications including the Sunday Times and GQ mainly focusing on politicians’ expenses scandals and government waste. Cole was the co-editor of the right wing website Guido Fawkes site until 2015. He was once, allegedly, “in a relationship” with the woman who became Boris Johnson’s third wife, Carrie Symonds. There are similarities between the two men; they are both overweight and say amusing things (which are not always easy to grasp because of the plummy delivery) from a plump face. Johnson has a posher background and education than Cole.
In their introduction, the authors write: “We hope to provide the reader, and voter, with some clarity on the least-known incumbent of the highest office in recent times. It was written during the turbulent tenure of Truss’s premiership, when the judgement of history was yet to be passed. But the clues were always there, as this book will make clear.” They only started writing the book in August 2022.
For those of you who have not been following the teledrama that is British politics today as avidly as I have, here is a brief recap of Truss’s mayfly-like reign as prime minister. When Boris Johnson was forced to resign as party leader by his fellow Conservative MPs, there was a protracted and divisive leadership election to choose a successor. A number of contenders had a series of debates followed by several votes by Tory MPs until the contenders were whittled down to two. Then the members of the party (described as “swivel-eyed loonies” by one commentator) had the final say on which contender would become leader of the party and thus prime minister of the country. The general electorate had no say in the matter
In every round, Truss got fewer MP votes than Sunak but was one of the two left standing at the last round. She was then chosen over Sunak by Tory party members (but only by 57% to 43%, not by as big a margin as predicted). Meaning to say she was going to “hit the ground running,” Truss promised to “hit the ground” and she, indeed, landed on her face with a thud and a splatter like a Looney Tunes cartoon character.
Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s so-called mini-budget was an unashamed handout for the rich, aimed at stimulating enterprise but doing little for those on the lowest incomes. The plan required a mind blowing £400bn of extra borrowing over several years to fund what amounted to the biggest giveaway since Anthony Barber’s disastrous budget of 1972. Markets reacted very badly and the Bank of England launched a £65bn emergency intervention. The central bank was in effect being forced to save Britain’s economy from the actions of its own government.
Truss and Kwarteng are neighbours in Greenwich (as is another minister who Guardian sketch writer John Crace says is living proof that nominative determinism does not work, James Cleverly. Crace calls him Dim Jim.) Truss and Kwarteng were close friends. Harry Cole is showing his Sun credentials when he writes: “Amid their new-found political alliance, the Westminster gossip mill began to speculate about a relationship between Truss and Kwarteng. The rumour would persist in political circles for years thereafter, but sources close to both deny they were anything more than friends and only ever political bedfellows”. Their close friendship did not prevent Truss throwing Kamakwasi under the proverbial bus.
In his first interview since being sacked as chancellor, Kwarteng told TalkTV that he had advised Truss to “slow down” and take a “methodical and strategic approach” to boosting growth as prime minister. Kwarteng blamed Liz Truss for going too far and too fast with her radical economic reforms and says that he warned her it would lead to her downfall. He said Truss had rebuffed him, leading him to warn her “you will have two months if you carry on like this”. Kwarteng also revealed that he first discovered he had been sacked after seeing a tweet from The Times’ political editor. He said he told her that she was “mad” to fire him, adding: “People will ask, ‘If you sacked the person who was doing what you wanted, why are you still there?’ ” Kwarteng also insisted that he and Truss were “still friends” but revealed he had still not returned a missed call from her two days ago. “I will call her back,” he said. Kwarteng also insisted that he and Truss were “still friends” but revealed he had still not returned a missed call from her two days ago. “I will call her back,” he said.
It has since emerged that Truss allegedly used her personal phone while foreign secretary for numerous exchanges, including with officials from other nations, and for private chats with Kwasi Kwarteng. Asked about claims in the Mail on Sunday that these chats could have been read by Russian agents, Michael Gove, brought back to the cabinet by Sunak, did not deny this.
Truss, after sacking Kwarteng and making a number of U-turns, was forced to resign after a mere 44 days in office, making her the shortest-serving prime minister in the history of the United Kingdom.
In Her Beginning Was her End
In their book, Harry Cole and James Heale find many of the aspects of the Truss that we see today manifesting themselves earlier in her life. She came from a middle class background with both parents being activists on the left. Despite what she has said, she had a good education at a respected school in Leeds and went to Merton College, Oxford.
People who knew her at Oxford paint differing pictures. Friends recall her barely working in her first year and then doing virtually nothing but work in the third year. In those days she was a Lib-Dem not a Tory. Fellow student and future Guardian journalist Tanya Gold recollected her as “a library-bound anorak, with no lingering smell of depravity about her small, neat form”. Others detected a more mischievous and obdurate personality. In debate “she almost never backed down”. She displayed a “mischievous ability to read out essays on any number of the main events in British political history which always managed to say something new; not always accurate, but definitely new.” According to Cole and Heale, “Truss threw herself with some vigour into the political social scene, blending debate with heavy drinking.”
One contemporary said: “I thought she was personally obnoxious and obsessed with ‘radical’ causes like decriminalising drugs rather than the issues that actually were relevant”. Neil Fawcett told The Times: “I got the impression that she was more concerned with grabbing the limelight and being seen to be radical rather than believing in it.”
At Oxford, she met the man she was to marry, Hugh O’Leary (no relation to me, as far as I can tell). A fellow student said : “He was cruelly mocked as a Tony Blair grin-a-like … however hard he tries, Hugh is unfortunate in that he still looks like a Care in the Community case emitting a sad, desperate whine as he is exposed to the ridicule of the masses.” Someone else who knows him says O’Leary “is incredibly political, very right wing, unbelievably right wing – he’s almost as right wing as her. He loves the Tory party.”
After leaving Oxford, from 1996 to 2000, Truss worked for Shell, during which time she qualified as a Chartered Management Accountant (ACMA) in 1999. In 2000, Truss was employed by Cable & Wireless and rose to economic director before leaving in 2005.
By the time she went into politics in the grown-up world, Truss was a true-blue Tory. She had great difficulty getting a parliamentary seat. Tory grandee Sir Roger Gale is even today causing problems for the bunch of spivs, real estate agents and fireplace salesmen that tries to pass as a government. Gale was a problem for Truss a long time ago when she was trying to get on the list of approved candidates for the general election of 2001. At her interview by the Parliamentary Assessment Board, Gale was not impressed but Eleanor Laing approved her application. (Dame Eleanor is now Deputy Speaker).
There followed quite a struggle to get a seat. After trying in a lot of places, Truss succeeded when South West Norfolk Conservative Association chose her decisively against rival candidates, including a former British ambassador to Russia and future Cabinet member Thérèse Coffey.
Later, the Association was not too pleased by revelations that Truss had an extra-marital affair with Mark Field, the married Conservative MP who was her “mentor”. The press would not forget this. “Glamorous Tory Liz Truss, who shot to minor fame for having an affair with swarthy former frontbencher Mark Field, is reinventing herself as a boring policy wonk, taking a post at the think tank Reform.” “Cameron Cutie who had affair with top Tory wins plum seat”. “At a Spectator party, witnesses claim Mark Field had enjoyed the flowing Pol Roger champagne, and made a number of extremely ‘ungentlemanly’ comments to fellow partygoers about his affair with Truss.“
Field attained further notoriety when, on 20 June 2019, Greenpeace accused him of assault, after an activist who interrupted Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond’s Mansion House Speech was grabbed by the neck, pinned against a wall and then pushed out of the event by Field. Field said he reacted “instinctively” and referred himself to the Cabinet Office for an investigation. He apologised to the activist for “grabbing her” and said he was worried she might have been armed.
Some weeks after the affair ended, Truss was pregnant. Her baby, Frances, was born on 18 March the following year. Truss told friends that the baby was her husband’s, and Hugh O’Leary is named as the father on the birth certificate.
A Star Is Born
It was not until 2010 that Truss entered parliament. Elected with a majority of more than 13,000, Truss was already earmarked as one of the stars of an intake that contained more than two dozen future ministers who would one day sit around the Cabinet table. She came to hold a number of ministerial positions. On 4 September 2012, Truss was appointed as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Education, responsible for childcare and early learning, assessment, qualifications, curriculum reform, behaviour and attendance, and school food review. In a 15 July 2014 cabinet reshuffle, Truss was appointed Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural affairs. On 14 July 2016, she was appointed as Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor in Theresa May’s first ministry. Truss became the first woman to hold either position and the first female Lord Chancellor in the thousand-year history of the office. Following the 2017 UK general election, Truss was moved on 11 June to the position of Chief Secretary to the Treasury, attending the cabinet but not a full member of it, in what was seen by some as a demotion. She was International Trade Secretary from 2019 to 2021. On 15 September 2021, Boris Johnson promoted Truss from International Trade Secretary to Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development affairs.
There were some achievements and some failures and at each job she displayed an innate Trussyness. That habit, which is so annoying today, of saying “I have been very clear”, was there a long time ago. “There was no strategic comms plan; it was just here’s what we are doing one day in a speech. There had been zero pitch rolling; there were no outriders. And frankly it showed. If Liz had the full support of the department, the secretary of state or even her own MPs it might have been easier, but it was all done on the hoof.” “She did it Gonzo style and she got whacked. There was very little pitch rolling on something so controversial”. David Laws said: “‘I like Liz but she doesn’t listen very much, and when people try to make points, she just talks straight over them in a slightly irritating and rather ‘deaf’ way.” There have been many gaffes and things which seemed designed to amuse the sardonic sketch writers. Some who have worked for Truss have vowed never to speak of the experience again.
Have Espresso and Instagram, Will Travel
Truss could be a demanding boss, fuelled up by espressos. She was “very particular about what she expected from officials on a foreign trip. While not a formal ‘rider’ in the style of a travelling rock star, orders were sent ahead to embassies around the world with details of what she would expect on a visit:
• Double espressos served in a flat-white-sized takeaway cup.
• No big-brand coffee, independent producers only, except Pret if in the UK.
• No pre-made or plastic-packed sandwiches — nothing to be served that has not been freshly prepared.
• Bagels or sushi for lunch — absolutely no mayonnaise on anything, ever.
• A bottle of sauvignon blanc provided in the fridge of any overnight accommodation.
Kirsty Buchanan, a former aide, once remarked: ‘She drinks about 42,000 espressos a day or she used to when I worked for her … she would sit there with a massive meatball sub or eat three croissants for breakfast. She would carb up; frankly no woman in her forties should be eating that much and getting away with it.’ Other aides note a long-suffering espresso machine was lugged from department to department each reshuffle, while another former staffer was at pains to point out that under no circumstances was the foreign secretary to be served fruit for breakfast.’”
When she resigned she gave another weird speech outside Number 10 at the special lectern that looked like a collapsible Jenga tower. Truss’s farewell speech was even more embarrassing than her press conference announcing the defenestration of Kwarteng. In her desperate scrabbling around for positive things to say about her truncated premiership, she seemed to be claiming credit for the death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of King Charles. That was edited out from later broadcasts.One wonders what the future holds for Truss. Boris Johnson can make a lucrative living from public speaking and journalism. Truss’s abysmal communication skills would appear to rule this out but I understand Theresa May she has made £450,487 from delivering speeches this year. Who knows?