DAN HODGES: The Year of the Truss! Foreign Secretary has been transformed from the Cabinet’s jet-setting Judith Chalmers into Boris’s heir apparent
Soon after he was appointed Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab issued a new edict to his civil servants.
All other Foreign Office Ministers were henceforth to be referred to as JMs – Junior Ministers – in future internal departmental correspondence.
Unsurprisingly, the JMs didn’t take it too well. ‘We were being treated like we were children,’ one disgruntled Minister complained.
Their period on the naughty step didn’t last long. Raab became embroiled in Sunlounger-gate, Boris demoted him in the subsequent reshuffle, and Liz Truss was appointed in his place.
On her first day in the job, she issued a note to her officials ordering the JM designation be dropped.
‘Liz gets it,’ a Minister said. ‘She knows how to treat her colleagues properly. It’s one of the reasons she’s been so successful.’
Spectacularly successful. 2021 has been Liz Truss’s year.
When it began, the International Trade Secretary was viewed by many in Westminster as the Cabinet’s Judith Chalmers.
Each week a photo would emerge of her in another sun-kissed location, as she spanned the globe hunting down those lucrative but elusive post-Brexit deals.
It ends with her occupying one of the Great Offices of State. She’s now in charge of masterminding the final fraught stages of Britain’s EU exit.
And – were Boris to suddenly fall beneath a heavily laden wine-and-cheese platter – favourite to replace him in No 10 Downing Street.
The last 12 months have been brutal for the Government. The moment Boris faltered. The point the gloss came off Dishy Rishi. Brutal, in fact, for almost every member of the Cabinet save one. 2021. It was The Year Of The Truss
The Truss Ascendancy wasn’t supposed to happen like this. If at all.
A couple of months ago, when a survey of Tory members by the influential ConHome website had bestowed a staggering 83 per cent approval rating upon her, I asked a Minister about the political implications.
‘The problem for Liz is if we were looking at a leadership election in a few months then she’d be in prime position,’ he said, ‘but Boris is fireproof. Nothing sticks to him. So we’re not looking at a vacancy for another three or four years. And by then the picture will have changed.’
After recent events, Boris is about as fireproof as a pyromaniac showering in a Texas oil-gusher.
And while reports of his imminent departure have been overplayed, frustrated Tory MPs are already beginning to mentally align themselves with a successor.
Last week a second major obstacle was removed from her path. Her decision to back Remain had been seen by some as a deal-breaker for the Tory Spartan backbenchers who will hold significant sway over the choice of leader.
But Lord Frost’s resignation, followed by Truss’s insertion as Brexit Minister, has changed that dynamic.
She now has a golden opportunity to burnish her pro-Brexit credentials – one she clearly intends to seize.
No sooner had she been handed the role than she issued a statement affirming her willingness to trigger Article 16 – suspending part of the Brexit deal – if further EU concessions aren’t forthcoming over the Northern Ireland protocol.
‘New chapter, same story,’ wailed The Guardian, criticising her ‘pugnacious tone’. But such criticism from the in-house magazine of the Remain camp will have been music to her ears, given defining herself against the enemies of Brexit is now a key part of her political strategy. A strategy she will indeed pursue ‘pugnaciously’, according to allies.
Although she’s now the longest-serving member of the Cabinet, her new status as Boris’s heir apparent means she’s set to face an entirely new level of scrutiny.
One of the criticisms levelled by Truss’s opponents is that she’s a political lightweight. But it’s a caricature those who have served under her reject.
‘I was with her when she was dealing with the 2016 prison riots,’ says one official who was at the Ministry of Justice.
‘No 10 and everyone else were screaming, “You’ve got to send in the Army!!!” But she was telling them, “It’s OK. We’ll wait till we send in the Tornado Teams. They’ll get things under control.” And they did. She held her nerve.’
She’ll have to keep holding it. Although she’s now the longest-serving member of the Cabinet, her new status as Boris’s heir apparent means she’s set to face an entirely new level of scrutiny.
Her first major foreign policy speech, delivered to Chatham House two weeks ago, was widely panned.
‘I had to read it twice, to see if it really was as trite and lacking in an actual foreign policy as it came across on first reading. It was,’ moaned Alastair Campbell.
But Tony Blair’s former spin doctor was missing the point. It wasn’t aimed at the chancelleries of Europe, but the living rooms of Berkshire and Wiltshire.
If 2021 was kind to her, 2022 is destined to be tougher. The policy challenges she faces – Brexit closure, Putin’s Ukrainian adventurism, China’s increasingly unpassive aggression – are of an order she has not faced before
And again, condescension from the liberal intelligentsia will only serve to bind her more closely to the Conservative grassroots.
Not least because her rise has not been based on developing a sophisticated political ideology, or creating a slick online media brand, as Rishi Sunak has. Instead, Truss has survived and flourished by doing the simple things well.
Take the template for her time as Trade Secretary. Turn up in a capital. Sign a minor trade deal. Grab a selfie. Move on.
As one friend said: ‘People don’t realise just how much influence she’s already had over the Government’s agenda. When she was Chief Secretary she kept banging on about freeports and everyone thought she was mad.
‘Now it’s a major plank of policy. She came up with the idea of retention payments for maths and physics teachers. It was announced by Rishi earlier this year. She was the person who first started talking about Rust-Belt Britain. That was the precursor to the Red Wall.’
If 2021 was kind to her, 2022 is destined to be tougher. The policy challenges she faces – Brexit closure, Putin’s Ukrainian adventurism, China’s increasingly unpassive aggression – are of an order she has not faced before.
As are the upcoming political tests. From beneath its progressive camouflage the liberal Left is preparing to subject her to the same misogynistic barrage it launches against all high-profile female Tory Ministers.
Attacks that will be prosecuted with special ferocity, given the extent the pro-Europeans among them see her as a traitor to their cause.
She will also find her political back-catalogue scoured for undiscovered, or hitherto unnewsworthy, transgressions.
Last week a clip of a 19-year-old Truss castigating the Monarchy during a youthful fling as a Liberal Democrat circulated on social media. Though her statement ‘I agree with Paddy Ashdown’ will probably have done more damage than anything she said about the Crown.
And then there is the new-found jealousy and sycophancy she will find emanating from her colleagues.
The speed with which Truss has been catapulted on to the Westminster A-list means she has had little time to bring a cadre of senior allies with her.
Despite a reputation for being socially awkward, she is popular with fellow MPs. But for the moment there are few hardcore Cabinet or backbench Trusstafarians.
Despite a reputation for being socially awkward, she is popular with fellow MPs. But for the moment there are few hardcore Cabinet or backbench Trusstafarians
But that isn’t necessary a deal-breaker. Not least because those trying to divine how she navigates the treacherous path to replacing Boris need look no further than Boris himself.
He had minimal organised parliamentary support. Theresa May handed him what was supposedly a Brexit-poisoned chalice – ‘you Brexit, you fix it’ was how her team laughingly framed it.
And by placing him in the gilded cage of the Foreign Office, she believed she’d dispatched Boris to a brief so far removed from the daily political cut and thrust his leadership ambitions would be neutered.
Look how that played out. Boris also had another advantage Truss shares. Opponents kept underestimating him. Until it was too late.
To be fair, there are signs some of them are waking up to the danger. Last week, a rumour was circulating of an unofficial pact between Sunak and Jeremy Hunt to keep her out of the final two in any future leadership contest.
But as Boris also demonstrated, when you enjoy strong popularity among Tory activists, the MPs who rely on them have a habit of falling into line.
The last 12 months have been brutal for the Government. The moment Boris faltered. The point the gloss came off Dishy Rishi.
Brutal, in fact, for almost every member of the Cabinet save one. 2021. It was The Year Of The Truss.
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