UK PM Liz Truss's political journey takes perilous new twist

Truss is no stranger to screeching U-turns. She began her political journey as the Liberal Democrat-supporting daughter of progressive parents and opposed the monarchy and Brexit.
UK Prime Minister Liz Truss
UK Prime Minister Liz Truss

LONDON: British Prime Minister Liz Truss won power by appealing to Conservative members as the heir to Margaret Thatcher. Barely six weeks into her tenure, her hard-right economic platform lies in ruins.

Truss succeeded Boris Johnson by telling the Tory rank-and-file that she would turbo-charge economic growth through tax cuts, via increased borrowing.

She accused her rival Rishi Sunak of "scaremongering" when he warned that such an approach at a time of rampant inflation would drive up interest rates for millions of Britons.

But that is exactly what has happened, leading Truss on Friday to part ways with her finance minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, a fellow traveller on her political journey to the free-market, libertarian right.

Yet the chancellor of the exchequer was merely the public face for Truss's own agenda when he delivered his disastrous budget announcement on September 23.

Kwarteng's sacrifice may not prove enough. Senior Tory MPs bidding to unseat Truss are said to be plotting ways to deny the party membership another say in their choice of leader.

Truss is no stranger to screeching U-turns. She began her political journey as the Liberal Democrat-supporting daughter of progressive parents and opposed the monarchy and Brexit.

Photo | AFP
Photo | AFP

Her youthful calls to abolish the royal family ran headlong into her new role when Queen Elizabeth II died on September 8, only two days after appointing Truss.

The new prime minister paid tribute to the late monarch, curtsied to King Charles III, and joined the queen's successor on a tour of his new UK realms.

But her tribute from the steps of 10 Downing Street was widely seen as stilted, betraying the leaden oratory of Truss in comparison to the verbal theatrics of Johnson.

Yet after the scandal-ridden Johnson, Truss's unvarnished style and promises of a right-wing agenda found favour with the Tory membership.

Human hand grenade

"She's always been outspoken. She's always been a disrupter," said Mark Littlewood, head of the Institute of Economic Affairs think-tank and a former member of Oxford University's Liberal Democrat club with Truss.

"You really need to understand Elizabeth Truss as a kind of free-market liberal," he told AFP when she took power.

Truss's rise to become the UK's third female prime minister has inevitably led to comparisons with the first: Thatcher.

As foreign secretary for the past year, Truss had been pictured riding atop a tank and sporting a Russian fur hat in Moscow, just like the Tory icon.

Johnson's former top aide Dominic Cummings likened her to a "human hand grenade", and some MPs have accused her of excessive self-promotion.

Photo | AFP
Photo | AFP

Truss admits to not being the "slickest presenter". She is still mocked online for a bizarre speech she gave as environment minister in 2014, offering impassioned support for British cheese and pork.

Liberal to Tory

Truss grew up first in Scotland and then in an affluent suburb of Leeds, northern England.

Her mother was a nurse, teacher and campaigner for nuclear disarmament who took her on protests, and her father was a left-wing maths professor.

During the Tory leadership campaign, Truss criticised her Leeds school for fostering "low expectations".

That prompted a backlash from teachers, contemporaries and locals who accused her of inventing an "insulting" backstory to curry favour with the Tory right.

Despite the school's supposed failings, she went on to Oxford, where -- like Sunak -- she graduated in philosophy, politics and economics.

At Oxford, she was president of the university's Liberal Democrat branch. At the party's national conference in 1994, she gave a speech calling for the abolition of the monarchy.

"I was a bit of a teenage controversialist," Truss admitted during campaigning.

By her own admission, her switch to the Conservatives shocked her parents, but she says her beliefs had evolved.

After university, Truss worked in the energy sector, including for Shell, and telecommunications before entering politics a decade later.

She was a local councillor in southeast London for four years and became an MP in 2010, part of a new generation of women and minority candidates encouraged by then-party leader David Cameron.

He faced down protests from the local party in the agricultural South West Norfolk constituency after it emerged that Truss had been having an extra-marital affair with a fellow Tory.

Her critics were dubbed the "Turnip Taliban".

Truss's marriage to an accountant survived the episode. They have two daughters.

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