Party members like to see a bit of scar tissue on their leaders. They want a true believer, a member of the tribe. The stellar CV may be all very well, but at heart what they want is a warrior who fights for the cause. That is why Tony Abbott was always more popular with the Liberal Party faithful than Malcolm Turnbull. Having spent most of my life among Liberal Party branch members and much of the last four years mixing with the Tory rank and file, believe me: they are the same people. Exactly. Same demographic, same political values, same attitudes, same prejudices. They look the same, talk the same, even dress the same.
Liz Truss is a favourite among those people. She reaches them in a way that Rishi Sunak can’t. They can relate to her – familiar, friendly, likeable. Just like them. She is the girl next door. Not too glamorous. (It doesn’t help Sunak in the relatability stakes that he is married to a billionaire’s daughter.) Not quite as smart as Rishi, but perfectly smart enough. (They both did the same degree at Oxford, the BA in philosophy politics and economics, “PPE”. Sunak got a First, Truss an upper Second. Her best subject was econometrics.)
Much more important than academic credentials, Truss talks the Tories’ language. She knows which buttons to press. In particular, she talks about freedom: freedom of choice, freedom of speech, freedom from political correctness, freedom from big government, freedom from high taxes.
Her beliefs are hard-core and uncompromising. As foreign secretary, her language condemning Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was the sharpest of any European foreign minister, reminiscent in its bluntness of the unwavering tones of Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, Truss is the member of Boris Johnson’s cabinet (and of Theresa May’s before him) who most consciously identifies with Thatcher’s brand of Tory neoliberalism. Thatcher’s memory may not be beloved among the public, but it is still revered by the Tory rank and file. Truss has also been the cabinet’s chief warrior against woke – and if there is one cause that stirs the blood of the Tory faithful as much as high taxes, it is the war on woke.
Although Truss is the preferred candidate of the Tory right, she is not a social conservative. (In the leadership campaign, she has been embarrassed by the revelation that she was once a republican.) Her position is essentially libertarian. For instance, she was a strong supporter of gay marriage. As international trade secretary, she was the great champion within cabinet of the Australia-UK free trade agreement. Once, when we were talking about her political beliefs, she compared the two issues (which are not often bracketed together). “Freedom is what I believe in, George. Freedom to love. Freedom to trade.” She even named one of her daughters Liberty.
This will be a contest between the brilliant, wealthy managerialist and the middle-class woman who “stands for something”. Goldman Sachs versus John Stuart Mill.
Rishi Sunak is the clever person’s choice. He’s no doubt the smartest person in the race, the most polished, the most glamorous. Every Oxford common room and every city boardroom will unite in willing him to succeed. But Liz Truss is the true believers’ favourite. She is defined by her values, and her values are their values. She is one of them. That’s why I think she will win.
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