Continuity is key in the Liz Truss leadership campaign, according to her supporters. Securing the backing of Johnson loyalists Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries, Truss has presented herself as being the safest hand to steady the ship at a sea-sickening time for the Conservative party.
Offering a slew of tax cuts to gain hardline Tory support, Truss has seemed desperate to inspire a campaign bid that takes and takes but gives back nothing. Like many of her fellow candidates, Truss is seeking to peel back much of the environmental legislation put in place by the government she has been so intimately a part of, but even a reversal of the ban on fracking is unlikely to plug any of the financial holes in her sinking policy strategy. Promising to axe the hike in corporation tax and reverse the National Insurance rise, while increasing defence spending to 3 per cent is a fantastical string of promises that seek to attract right wing Tories, without offering any constructive thought to the onslaught of problems faced by the nation.
The Foreign Secretary’s approach is a symptom of the Conservative party’s porcupine instinct, pulling back at a time where it should be driving forwards. Leading and not retreating is paramount for a party whose populist leader made such historic gains in 2019. In a histrionic attempt to add gravitas to her campaign, Truss has turned to Margaret Thatcher’s dusty playbook.
There is always a candidate during a Conservative leadership campaign who either tries to invoke or emulate Thatcher. Most will dedicate a passage in a speech or an answer in a debate to praising her premiership and lionising her character. Indeed, her legacy remains a major pull factor in the party’s membership drives and advertising. Parts of the Tory membership have become a Thatcherite fanclub. However, the quasi-religious eulogising of Thatcher’s tenure at the top of British politics and the shoddy tribute acts that leadership candidates unfurl before bemused TV audiences has never been so risible and cringe-worthy as Liz Truss’s peculiar performance on Sunday night’s ITV debate.
With a permanently raised arm, Truss awkwardly laid unnecessary emphasis on her Mark II Thatcherite policies by abrasively articulating each answer and too energetically engaging her opponents. It looked contrived.
Boris Johnson’s admiration and occasional imitations of Winston Churchill are fanboy slips, like Jim Hacker’s in Yes Minister, at worst. But he has benefited on the campaign trail and against political adversaries from possessing an individuated personality.
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Whether you loathe him or like him, he has managed to get ahead in public life because people believe (or believed) he is genuine. And he could only have done that if voters saw him as somebody significant in himself, not simply as a deafening echo of former greatness. He certainly does owe aspects of his character to Churchill. We invariably pick up quirks and ticks from people we admire. But most of us are a vast sum of parts, a unique concoction of disparate traits. Liz Truss has exhumed a tried and tested persona, doing her best to resemble the Iron Lady of the 1980s sartorially as well as rhetorically.
The Foreign Secretary has been doing a Maggie impersonation for some time. As Foreign Secretary, we have seen her mimic Thatcher’s combative style of diplomacy, hoping, as it did with Maggie, that the British public would be impressed by her ardent defence of their interests.
It doesn’t work. She projects too little authority, inspires minimal confidence and flounders too often. Liz Truss is a woman of wax rather than a lady of iron and the party’s membership would be wise to recognise it.