Trade Wars

Liz Truss is easy to mock, but she could do more damage than Boris Johnson has ever done | Gaby Hinsliff

Liz Truss loves math. She loves him so much that she used to ask officials mental arithmetic questions at meetings, and once told an audience of high-flying women that her best advice for their ambitious daughters was to study. the subject. She loves math so much, in fact, that she approaches political decisions like an equation to be solved. The math teacher’s daughter methodically considers all possible options, including some that others would consider ineligible; she likes to test each argument, sometimes until exhaustion. (As one of her assistants used to joke: What’s the difference between a Rottweiler and Liz Truss? A Rottweiler eventually lets go.) Her logical, unbiased approach as a mathematician makes her a formidable negotiator and strategist without sentimentality, quick to abandon positions that no longer serve her.

Yet those who know her best say it comes with a curious emotional detachment, or an inability to factor into her calculations how others are feeling, which is only now on display. She can be good company in private, funny and lively. But when colleagues mention his “slightly clumsy” manner, or even call him “as close to crackers as anyone I’ve met in parliament” (Dominic Cummings, himself used to being called something similar ), that particular disconnect is often what they mean. He shaped the campaign for the woman most likely to be Britain’s next prime minister, barring a political earthquake, and could soon shape the future of this country.

The first slip-up was its regional pay policy, abandoned amid predictable outrage over lower salaries for teachers and nurses in the north of the country. The second and most serious was to pledge to help pay fuel bills by lowering taxes, “not handing out handouts”. (She now claims that both policies were misunderstood and that she did not rule out direct subsidies.) Even those in favor of Truss expect a reversal of these documents, in a climate where participants in the groups talk talk about moving their elderly parents with them for the winter because that’s the only way anyone can afford to keep warm. “Politics is about emotions, it’s not a mathematical equation,” explains a former colleague who worked closely with her. “If you’re in a situation like ours, where people are really terrified, this whole ‘wrap yourself in the flag, talk about how Britain is’ sounds deaf.” Truss is enviably calm in a crisis, adds this colleague, partly because she takes the emotion away from the problem. But the problem is that sometimes emotion is key, and empathy matters. What this means for the country, if it ends up leading it through a crisis of staggering proportions, remains poorly understood.

With her long track record in cabinet and her burning ambition, she is not “the Tory Corbyn”. But neither is she simply “Boris in a robe,” though her indulgence in the ludicrous notion that the media is to blame for Johnson’s deliberately self-inflicted downfall similarly suggests Trumpian tactics. She doesn’t have Johnson’s taste for the high life—any emerging scandal won’t involve gold wallpaper—or his need to be liked; she taught herself not to care what people in politics think of her. But where Johnson has never seemed to know what to do with his huge majority, Truss is a workaholic geek whose government would be driven by his manic energy. In the worst case, she could do more damage than he ever did.

“She is against the grain. Just because 90% of people tell her, “That’s the way it should be,” doesn’t mean she’s not inclined to accept it. It’s not bad quality, but it can be a problem if it’s taken too far and your default setting is that orthodoxy is always wrong,” says a former staffer at No 10, who sympathizes with his argument that the Treasury isn’t always on the right, but nevertheless points out that the consensus may be the consensus for a reason. “She sees the world in black and white. There’s no room for fudge or gray areas. Yet the paradox of Truss is that in some ways she can be surprisingly flexible.

Under David Cameron, she was a card-carrying, centrist Cameroonian, part of what he called in his memoirs his future “dream team”, alongside Nicky Morgan, Matt Hancock and Anna Soubry. She is now the darling of the far right. Three years ago, she supported construction on the green belt so that young people could become homeowners; Not anymore. She has passionately championed flexible working for parents throughout her career, but is now waging Jacob Rees-Mogg’s war on working from home. A remains unenthusiastic in 2016 (George Osborne dissuaded her from backing Leave in the referendum, a decision she regretted when Leave was won) she was a no-deal Brexiteer, beat a bad deal when Power began to ebb from Theresa May to Johnson less than three years later.

His belief in low taxes and government spending accordingly is much more genuine and consistent. (She was a hawk-eyed chief secretary to the Treasury, challenging sums traditionally seen as peanuts, and still diagnosing NHS problems as too much bureaucracy rather than not enough money.) But instead of growing l economy and use profits to cut taxes as Cameron advocated, she now argues to do the easy part first and hope growth follows. “She is where the power is, which I find extraordinary,” says a former minister. “But on the other hand, these people tend to win.”

She may well look to recalculate once in No 10, giving up unpopular positions without embarrassment as she has done before. However, its room for maneuver would be minimal. The Tory right put her where she is now and they won’t tolerate backsliding on tax cuts, or on the Northern Ireland protocol – although trade wars with Europe would only make it worse the coming recession – or the threats to leave the European Court of Human Rights. As prime minister facing several complex crises simultaneously, she would struggle to operate in her usual methodical but time-consuming manner, while judging the public’s mood minute by minute. On the contrary, the missteps could become thicker and faster.

There are still people who can’t take Liz Truss seriously, but it’s that kind of snickering that no doubt did. When critics mocked her speeches, she set about methodically brushing up on her presentation skills. Even when she built a power base in plain sight, she was never deemed threatening enough for Johnson or May to fire her. Rishi Sunak obviously underestimated the amount of homework she had done on the conservative members. Now she’ll have the last laugh, except it’s not funny. She could lead the country in four weeks. If it’s not serious, what is it?