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Maiden Voyages: Liz Truss and her predecessors

Illustration: Tracy Worrall

4 min read

In his occasional series, Patrick Kidd looks at maiden speeches of note

It would be wrong to say that Liz Truss rose without trace to become our third female Prime Minister. She is, after all, the longest continuously serving current member of the Conservative front bench in the Commons. But it is unlikely that anyone who watched her maiden speech in 2010 will have marked her down as “one to watch”. Thérèse Coffey, her future deputy prime minister sitting immediately behind as she made it, was rarely distracted from her mobile phone.

It was a safe, pedestrian effort, a bit bland and lacking in charm, ticking off the required local press releases on improvements to the A11, Swaffham community hospital and flood defences. She spoke up for agriculture and education, saying she wanted maths and science to “move from geek to chic”. But perhaps there was a hint of her ambition in name-checking two turbulent former constituents: Thomas Paine, “who started revolutions on two continents,” and Boudicca, a Thetford lass whose Brexit dreams collapsed at Watling Street.

It did not make much of an impression on Yvette Cooper. Winding up the debate on the economy for Labour, the then shadow work and pensions secretary praised various contributors on both sides but when she came to Truss said: “I cannot quite read my handwriting but I think she talked about farming.” Ouch.

How different from Britain’s first female prime minister, whose maiden speech 50 years earlier received gushing praise all around and convinced Barbara Castle, not a frequent ally over the following years, to vote with her.

It is unlikely that anyone who watched Truss’s maiden speech in 2010 will have marked her down as ‘one to watch'

In a rare move, if a typical one, Margaret Thatcher chose to get off the mark by moving a piece of her own legislation, a bill to allow the press to attend meetings of public bodies. Speaking for 27 minutes without notes, the new member for Finchley said the law was essential to let the public know what it was getting for its money.

“An outstanding speech, both for its manner and the ability with which the honourable lady marshalled the case,” said Castle, telling fellow Labour MPs who had spoken against it that they would not have her support in the lobby. “I believe it is conservatism which needs secrecy to survive and not socialism,” she said.

Charles Pannell, another Labour MP who had been mayor of Erith, where Thatcher began her political career, and claimed to have heard her maiden hustings, called it a “beautiful speech, a model on how to deliver a speech in favour of a bill, instead of having a dreary essay read to us in a turgid monotone.” Henry Brooke, the Tory MP for Hampstead, said he couldn’t give too high praise for a speech that “most of us would envy” and anticipated she would go far.

It was not hard to stand out as a female Tory MP in 1959: there were only 11 of them. By the time Theresa May entered Parliament in 1997 that had soared to 13. Nonetheless, as the second woman to enter Downing Street explained in her maiden speech, people still struggled to tell them apart. The first phone call she received in her new office had been from someone wanting to speak to Edwina Currie, while people kept muddling May’s seat of Maidenhead with Ann Widdecombe’s constituency of Maidstone. 

Worse, some thought she was Teresa Gorman. “I am thinking of acquiring a badge reading: ‘No, I am the other one’,” May said. Her dry humour was noted by her leader: just two years later William Hague made May the first of her intake to reach the shadow cabinet. 

Patrick Kidd is editor of The Times diary column and author of The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics
 

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