Tory MP Liz Truss has battled sexism, scandal – and taken on many a Westminster rat. She tells Elizabeth Day what scares her, what infuriates her – and why she’s the natural candidate for the top job.
Five-year-old Liz Truss had a complaint to make on her first day at school. Each of the new pupils had been allotted a name-badge in the shape of a fish to pin on to their jumpers. Liz’s parents had christened her Mary – which was the name on her badge – but at home she was always known by her middle name, Elizabeth.
‘I was just aghast… [I thought] how can you do that to me?’
She marched up to the teacher and told her this was not an acceptable state of affairs. Did the teacher give her a new badge? ‘Of course,’ Liz says now, as if it should have been obvious that no other outcome would have been acceptable. There is a short pause. She glances down at a wilting plate of padron peppers she has just ordered for lunch. ‘I think I just wrote on the back of the other badge.’
The tilt of her head is still defiant.
Perhaps this is how future politicians are made. As children, they have clear ideas of how things should be and are unafraid to express themselves while the rest of us are just muddling about in the sandpit and trying to work out long division. Now, at 43, sitting across from me in the Spanish tapas restaurant, in a trendy part of Southeast London, that she has chosen for this interview, Liz Truss, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the first ever female Lord Chancellor, Conservative MP for South West Norfolk and mother of two, can never remember a time when she did not have sharply formed opinions about the world.
When I ask her to tell me in three words what her vision is for Britain, she barely has time to draw breath. ‘Aspirational,’ she says, eating a ham croquette. ‘Free – that means doing what you want, having control over life, not being told what to do. And it’s got to be just. People have got to feel that barriers aren’t being put in their way because they are a woman or because they’re from a low-income background.’
She polishes off the croquette, proving that there are certainly no barriers to finishing her tapas.
Later in our conversation, she will tell me that ‘every regret I have is about not saying things rather than saying things… I wish I’d been more outspoken’.
It’s an interesting admission for a politician, given that they are more normally criticised for the art of saying nothing in focus-grouped soundbites. Liz even manages her own Instagram account and refuses to let anyone else write the captions, so that occasionally they seem rather esoteric. ‘Hands off my pic-a-nic basket’ recently accompanied a picture of Liz sitting alfresco in a floral-print dress over the sunny Easter weekend, along with a #yogibear hashtag. ‘Literally a hot MP’ someone has commented. It’s true that Liz is photogenic, fashionable and seen in political circles as a Tory moderniser. There has been much talk of her as a potential Conservative Party leader after Theresa May goes – talk that admittedly appears to have been generated with great success by Liz herself. She’s not so much a dark horse as one that has painted itself blue and wrapped itself in flashing neon lights.
So how are her leadership ambitions, I ask?
She launches into a meandering reply in which she says we should focus less on personalities and more on visions of what we want Britain to be.
‘And there is no contest at the moment,’ she concludes a little weakly.
But, I say, the Home Secretary Amber Rudd has openly stated that her own leadership bid is ‘entirely possible’. Isn’t it refreshing that women in politics are now owning their ambitions rather than equivocating?
‘Rather than saying, “I couldn’t possibly…”? Yeah,’ Liz concedes. ‘And [when you’re a] woman, I think you have to be prepared to put yourself forward because nobody else is going to.’
She says her male colleagues still ‘mansplain’ tricky political or financial concepts to her, worried that her pretty little woman brain won’t be able to cope, and that she is often referred to as ‘feisty’ and ‘ambitious’ as if it’s a negative thing when, ‘I think we should be more ambitious, I love ambition.
‘I think every woman in this country will understand what it means to be mansplained to,’ she continues. ‘It happens in everyday life – you know, if you go into a shop, or you’re talking about finance. It’s a reflection of the fact that women are becoming more equal, they are getting more senior jobs but it’s not the case that there is still no prejudice about women in a workplace and it’s a reflection of that.’
Liz points out that ‘something like 22 per cent’ of the Tory parliamentary party is female ‘so there’s just a lesser share of space… You need to be prepared to be out there.’ And ‘out there’ she most certainly is. Over recent months, Liz has cultivated a number of high-profile appearances looking fresh and breezy in the media spotlight. There has been a style makeover courtesy of her 13-year-old daughter Liberty: ‘She’s very into the idea of a pop of colour,’ Liz says. ‘She shops at places such as New Look and River Island, so she introduces me to places I wouldn’t think of much.’
When her mother gets it wrong, Liberty is ‘quite restrained actually, but she does indicate that perhaps I should not leave the house in that outfit’.
Today Liz is wearing a pair of striped culottes from New Look teamed with a white Arket shirt and sparkly trainers from Zara. I feel sure that both Liberty and her younger sister Frances, ten, would approve. The contrast with the increasingly world-weary appearance of Theresa May could not be starker.
What’s the Prime Minister like, I ask?
‘Incredibly hard-working,’ comes the reply. It is not the most ringing of endorsements – when the hardline Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg crops up in conversation, Liz calls him ‘a real sweetie’.
‘I just think it will wind him up calling him that,’ she grins.
Anyway, we’re not here to talk about the Prime Minister or Jacob Rees-Mogg. Our topic of conversation is Liz Truss and what makes her tick. I have been given an hour to try to find out. She is keen, I think, to show what she is like beyond politics – ‘the minute you leave Westminster, it’s like re-entering the earth’s atmosphere,’ she says – and chattily provides me with a list of her favourite box-sets, including the Netflix show Designated Survivor, about a housing minister who unexpectedly becomes president of the United States, and the political comedy Veep about a vice-president who unexpectedly becomes president of the United States. Could she be trying to tell us something?
She also enjoys gritty police procedurals such as Line of Duty and The Bridge because ‘it’s escapism. Like, you think, “This is much worse than my life because people are dying,”’ which is an interesting definition of escapism. She says the Game of Thrones character she most resembles is Arya Stark, the tomboy teenage assassin with fearsome fencing skills, because ‘she refuses to conform to what’s expected of her at any point’.
Liz’s admiration for Taylor Swift is also well documented (she makes frequent reference to the pop star in speeches in order to show she is very much down with the kids) but she says her real heroes are Little Mix, the all-female band who won The X Factor in 2011.
‘They’re quite feisty,’ Liz explains. ‘I’m trying to get Little Mix to come to play at the Treasury. If they’re reading this, I hope they accept my invitation. Because I think they’re quite exciting role models for young women – they believe in female empowerment and one thing I want to draw attention to is that you can’t have control of your own life unless you have your own money and, of course, the Treasury is the home of that. Also we’ve got a brilliant atrium at the Treasury where people could lean out of the windows listening to a Little Mix gig. That’s my vision… They are the Spice Girls of this generation.’
At home, Liz relaxes by baking. Cinnamon buns are her speciality and she makes her own croissants, which is a three-day process, apparently.
‘Have you not made them, Elizabeth?’ she asks. Occasionally she will insert my name into conversation when I least expect it and I sit up with a jolt in case I’m being told off. It feels unnatural, as if she has belatedly remembered an item on her shopping list and must dash back to Tesco to retrieve it.
No, I say, I have never made croissants from scratch.
‘So the first day you make the dough…’
The explanation is long-winded and I glaze over, like one of her cinnamon buns. When she pauses for breath, I tell her she should go on The Great Celebrity Bake Off.
‘I’ve been posting endless pictures on Instagram just so the producers notice,’ she replies. ‘And it’s had zero effect!’
She is joking, I think, but it’s difficult to tell because it sometimes feels as though Liz Truss speaks human as a second language. Nowhere was this more apparent than in a 2014 speech she gave as Environment Secretary to the Tory Party Conference in which she memorably delivered a rousing call to arms over the fact Britain imported two thirds of its cheese.
‘That. Is. A. Disgrace,’ she opined, reading the Autocue in a style best described as robotic passion. The speech went viral for all the wrong reasons and prompted a question on Have I Got News For You.
‘It was probably too much practice and trying to deliberately ham it up,’ she says now (somewhat ironically given that in the same speech she also refers excitedly to opening up ‘new pork markets’).
Did she watch it back?
‘Yeah. I didn’t think it was that bad actually, it was just other people’s reaction.’
Nothing much seems to faze her. Despite my prodding, I can’t find much evidence of emotional introspection. When was the last time she cried?
‘Oh, probably watching a film.’
Has she ever felt depressed?
‘I’ve been anxious but not depressed. I’m an incorrigible optimist.’
Is she intimidated by anything? She thinks for a long time.
‘I hate rodents,’ she says finally. ‘I mean, the House of Commons is completely infested. I will stand on a chair if I see one of the things.’
It’s not quite what I meant but now she’s on a roll.
‘If I do feel scared I deliberately challenge myself not to feel scared. So on Friday I’m going on a high-wire course even though I’m scared of heights… I enjoy pushing the boundaries… Who wants to live life in a safe way? Maybe some people do. But I don’t.’
What was her first date with her husband, accountant Hugh O’Leary, whom she met at the 1997 Tory Party Conference?
‘Iinvited him ice skating and he sprained his ankle.’
Oh, I gush, he literally fell for you!
‘I’ve always enjoyed winter sports,’ Liz bats back, unmoved.
This no-nonsense approach is partly to do with her upbringing. She went to a comprehensive school in Leeds and her parents encouraged talk about current affairs around the dinner table, even if they came from the opposite end of the political spectrum: her father, John, is a professor of mathematics and a Green Party member, her mother is a former nurse who used to take the young Liz to CND demonstrations. They divorced when Liz was 28.
After school, Liz went to Oxford to read philosophy, politics and economics as an affirmed Liberal Democrat. ‘My parents are well-meaning people [but] looking back now I think they had the wrong idea… Oxford was when I transitioned from being a Lib Dem to being a Tory.’
What prompted her change of heart?
‘I met Tories and I realised that they didn’t have two heads and were actually good people.’
Did she meet any Bullingdon Club members?
‘No, I never came across them. There were a few of those types of dining clubs at my college but I didn’t associate with them.’
She is the eldest of four, with three younger brothers, which I think gives a clue to her psychology. By her own admission she was a ‘bossy’ elder sister – ‘I was always the doctor operating on them’ – and she clearly had to make her voice heard from a young age in a male-dominated environment.
‘I remember going on a plane when I was 12 and my brothers were given “Junior Pilot” badges and I was given “Junior Air Hostess”. That just really annoyed me.’
What is it with you and badges, I say? Liz looks at me quizzically.
‘I quite often felt that with having three brothers, there were assumptions made about me that weren’t made about them… I don’t think women are better, I just think everyone should have an equal chance and I resent being typecast.’
She says her younger siblings are ‘very supportive’ of her political career, which kicked off after several years working as a management accountant. ‘And in times of need, they’ve ridden to the rescue,’ she adds.
It’s a notable aside from a woman who hasn’t given me much sense of ever needing to be rescued and Iwonder if she’s referring to the unpleasant spat when she was seeking selection in South West Norfolk in 2009. Several constituency association members objected, claiming that she had withheld information from them about an extramarital affair she’d had with the married Tory MP Mark Field five years earlier. Field’s marriage ended. Liz’s survived. Friends of Field still bear a grudge: ‘She gave the impression they were going to run off into the sunset together,’ says one.
In Norfolk, a motion was proposed to terminate Liz’s candidature, but this was defeated by 132 votes to 37.
‘It was a baptism of fire,’ she says now. ‘And it was difficult but… I was so determined to stay selected and I wasn’t going to let… you know, I worked really, really hard and I won that selection fair and square.
‘And, actually, even though it was a really unpleasant thing to go through, it made me stronger afterwards because I had to have that fight.’
Did it make her marriage stronger?
‘I think that’s a separate thing. But I am really happily married.’
She is wearing a long Monica Vinader pendant that was a present from her husband, so things on that front seem to be fine and she says firmly she doesn’t want to discuss it any more. I notice that Liz doesn’t talk about the impact the affair had on her husband or express any regret over the hurt she might have caused. The focus is all on winning the selection process.
Of course, ambition is admirable. Still, I can’t help but feel it needs to co-exist with a degree of empathy, especially in a potential leader. But perhaps I’m wrong and perhaps what we really need is a croissant-making, culottes-wearing Arya Stark wannabe whose first instinct on being faced with something she fears is to do more of it just to show that she can.
Those House of Commons rats better watch out.