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A study of ambition and self-promotion: Baroness Wheatcroft reviews 'Out of the Blue'

Moscow, February 2022: Then-foreign secretary Liz Truss takes part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier | Alamy

4 min read

Harry Cole and James Heale’s biography of a thick-skinned and short-lived prime minister is fascinating and insightful

Following the most ignominious ousting imaginable, after just 44 days in the office of prime minister, any near normal human being might have been expected to scuttle off to the shadows and stay there. Instead, just six weeks after her forced resignation, Liz Truss appointed former activist Jonathan Isaby as her personal press secretary.

The announcement came too late for inclusion in this rapidly published biography but it sums up several of the themes that emerge from Harry Cole and James Heale’s book: Truss is thick-skinned even by the standards of the most robust politicians; she was to a large extent the creature of the right-wing think tanks that are communally known as Tufton Street, and she continues to believe that her policies were right. Hiring Isaby, a former chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, indicates that, while her brief reign has altered the United Kingdom’s fortunes for the worst, she has emerged from No 10 completely unchanged. 

That extraordinary period in British history gets condensed into fewer than 40 pages. While they contain fascinating insights into the chaotic set-up over which she presided, most readers will need little reminding of the drastic policies announced without consultation, even around the cabinet table, the market mayhem that ensued and the final excruciating eight-minute press conference at which she agonised through just four questions.

This is, though, just a hasty postscript to the main body of the book which aims to illuminate the character who, they say, bade farewell to Downing Street declaring to staff: “Don’t worry. I’m relieved it’s over… at least I’ve been prime minister.”

She was never a team player, alienating many of the former allies to whom the authors spoke

She changed party, she changed her stance on Brexit, but her ambition to be PM appears to have been unwavering from an early age as do her fierce libertarian instincts which made Tufton Street her spiritual home – and she the ideologues’ ideal champion. Yet she was never a team player, alienating many of the former allies to whom the authors spoke. Her fixation on self-promotion saw her put huge effort into social media – it appears photo opportunities could take precedence over policy discussions during her ministerial visits – but, when it came to communicating with colleagues, she was often unwilling or even incapable. The book’s coverage of the bitter contest for the party leadership show that her victory was despite a largely dysfunctional and even warring team.

Her conviction that she is always right, despite ample evidence to the contrary, was always evident. David Laws, a Liberal Democrat minister in David Cameron’s Coalition government, recalled that: “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.”

Just ahead of the ludicrously labelled “fiscal event” even Kwasi Kwarteng was warning her: “You have got to slow it all down.” She refused and her loyal chancellor was first to pay the price.

In 2018, as chief secretary to the Treasury, she announced that “I aim to be the disruptor in chief”. That approach glares through the account of her time in student politics, in early ministerial roles and, eventually, in cabinet. It brought her mockery, demotions, and defeats but, thanks to members of the Conservative Party, she won the reward she sought. There she remained a disastrous and unrepentant disruptor with the inevitable result. But she may not have given up the fight.

Baroness Wheatcroft is a Crossbench peer

Out of the Blue: The inside story of the unexpected rise and rapid fall of Liz Truss
By: Harry Cole & James Heale
Publisher: HarperCollins

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Read the most recent article written by Baroness Wheatcroft - Lords Diary: Baroness Wheatcroft


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