LONDON — In their journey to the top, Liz Truss and her clutch of political allies have played the long game.
Truss finally landed the job of U.K. prime minister this week after an extensive — and somewhat checkered — run of middling government jobs since she entered parliament in 2010. She enters Downing Street flanked by two classmates also elected that year: Kwasi Kwarteng, her new chancellor, and Thérèse Coffey, her new deputy PM and health secretary.
Prior to Truss’ sudden elevation to foreign secretary less than a year ago, none of the three had ever held more than a middle-ranking Cabinet job. They now find themselves the most powerful trio in the country. It’s been quite a journey — though plenty of senior Tories are fearful of where it might lead.
“She risks repeating Boris Johnson’s mistake of favouring allies,” warned Theresa May’s former chief of staff Gavin Barwell on Tuesday. “It will be one of the least experienced [Cabinets] in modern times.
“The country is facing multiple crises right now and we need the most talented people from the governing party in government, not on the backbenches.”
Truss’ press secretary, Alex Wild, insisted the new Cabinet in fact “represents the depth and breadth of talent in the Conservative Party,” pointing out five of her original 10 leadership rivals have been offered key posts.
Joining Truss, Kwarteng and Coffey in the most senior-ranking roles are James Cleverly, the new foreign secretary, and Suella Braverman, the new home secretary, both elected in 2015 and both perpetually lower-ranking ministers who seemed unlikely to reach such giddy heights, despite their obvious ambition.
In contrast, conspicuous by their absence in Truss’ new top team are the experienced big names who supported her chief opponent Rishi Sunak — not to mention Sunak himself — creating what looks like a Cabinet of ultra-loyalists rather than one which aims to bring together a divided Conservative Party.
Also vanquished are Boris Johnson’s once-powerful Vote Leave cabal, with former Leveling Up Secretary Michael Gove, former Justice Secretary Dominic Raab and former Home Secretary Priti Patel all consigned to the backbenches along with the departed PM. Mooted comebacks for Iain Duncan Smith and David Frost have failed to materialize. Only Anne-Marie Trevelyan, shunted from international trade to transport, survives to fly a lonely Vote Leave flag near the top of government.
And missing too, with the departures of Gove and former Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, are any of the big-name Tories of the pre-2010 era — the so-called party graybeards, who can remember life in opposition. Only Ben Wallace, who as expected retains his job at defense after impressing throughout the Ukraine crisis, bucks that trend.
Truss never looked the most likely of the 2010 intake to reach the highest office in the land, according to several of her contemporaries, and her newly assembled team represents an abrupt reordering of the Conservative Party’s pecking order which even supporters accept could blow up in her face.
Her friends and critics agree she has two or three weeks at most to show her party she has what it takes to lead the country through its current crisis. The clock is already ticking.
Truss’ final ascent to No. 10 unfolded 12 long years after she was elected MP for South West Norfolk. Always in a hurry to scale the Westminster ladder, the 36-year-old Truss was soon handed the job of junior education minister under David Cameron’s leadership and — two fellow ministers from the time claim — was bitterly disappointed not to be among the first of the 2010 intake to enter Cabinet.
Her ambitions were soon realized in 2014, when she became environment secretary; and later justice secretary in 2016. Her record in both roles was viewed as patchy at best.
“She had a bad reputation from having been at Defra [the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs], where she just didn’t do a very good job. She didn’t have departmental grip,” said one of her former junior ministers. “That probably tells you quite a lot about the way that the Conservative Party is now — we are elevating people way beyond their capabilities.”
As a lively young female member of the new generation of Tory MPs, Truss had been an obvious choice for Cameron’s frontbench — but was never an enthusiastic follower of Cameron’s politics, nor a member of his trusted inner circle.
“She was one of those people who was there because of David, but they weren’t particular fans of David,” said one former Cabinet colleague. “And they were also pretty unhappy with the [Tory-Lib Dem] coalition.” Another ex-minister remembers being asked for advice by Truss on how she could lobby Cameron, given the pair were not close.
Truss did always take a keen interest in policy, having previously worked for the Reform think tank and founded the Free Enterprise Group of Conservative MPs, but her obsession was free-market economics — never a particular driving force for Cameron.
Kwarteng was of this tradition too and, despite a fierce intellect, amid aggressive jockeying for position in the Cameron governments did not gain even a junior ministerial job until 2017.
A contemporary said of Kwarteng: “He wasn’t going to play the game of being nice to ministers and whips and all the rest of it. He was an Old Etonian, a little bit arrogant, and came in probably thinking, ‘well, you know, I’m good enough — if they want me, they want me.’” He was the last of the three to enter Cabinet, appointed business secretary last year.
Yet somehow Coffey, Truss’ new deputy PM, has flown even further under the radar, working her way steadily up through any number of low-profile jobs to the lower rungs of Cabinet without ever making any kind of splash.
Coffey and Truss go way back, both winning East Anglian seats in 2010 and bonding as constituency neighbors over a shared love of karaoke.
“Thérèse almost hides her intelligence — she’s got a very sharp brain,” said the same ex-Cabinet minister quoted above.
The decision to appoint her work and pensions secretary in 2019, following the abrupt resignation of Amber Rudd, proved pivotal for her career. She soon won plaudits for stewarding the department through the pandemic without any major upsets — unlike some of her colleagues.
These three slightly awkward figures, with ideological attachments to the right of the party, were thus never flavors of the month in the Cameron years. And as the Conservative Party transformed itself after his departure, this came to count in their favor.
Beware the big beasts
Helpful too, in the end, for the 2010 trio, was their non-alignment with Gove and Johnson’s Vote Leave project. Truss and Coffey both dutifully backed Remain in 2016, albeit with little enthusiasm, while the Brexiteer Kwarteng was never part of the Vote Leave gang.
That may have cost them bigger jobs when Johnson took power in 2019, but it also left Truss in pole position to take over when he was forced from office, an apparent loyalist who was never too close to be tainted by association.
And it leaves her ideologically free to pursue her chosen path.
The Brexit project as espoused by Johnson put together an electoral coalition of voters who wanted the government to be tough on immigration but were comfortable with higher spending, whereas Truss and her allies are more traditionally right-wing on the economy. The elevations of Jacob Rees-Mogg to business secretary and Simon Clarke to leveling up secretary are further indications of a decisive shift to the right on economic affairs.
A long-serving former MP said: “She wants it to be a sea change. [But] you have might have wanted someone who has held a number of senior jobs but doesn’t want to be leader and isn’t going to rock the boat, behind the scenes, who can say to Liz Truss: ‘Look, what are the unforeseen consequences of doing this?’”
The further danger for Truss in opting not to bring Sunak or his more experienced backers into the tent, is that at a stroke she risks creating a new generation of “big beasts” on the backbenches.
Raab, Gove and Sunak himself “are very recent senior government figures and can’t be brushed off, like [veteran rebel Tories] David Davis or Andrew Mitchell, as having had their day,” pointed out one Sunak-supporting MP.
There are, of course, good reasons why Truss may prefer to rely on her friends at this moment. The economic circumstances in which she takes power are bleak, and she needs allies close by.
“She will just know instinctively she can rely on Kwasi,” said one Cameron-era minister, contrasting this with the angry push-and-pull between Johnson and Sunak.
There is a decent helping of goodwill behind her for now, with most MPs willing to swallow their private objections for the sake of unity. But if and when things go wrong, they could unravel quickly.
Three Conservative MPs have already expressed surprise at the choice of Wendy Morton for chief whip — the prime minister’s enforcer of party discipline — saying she was “well-liked” but not seen as particularly tough. It may prove to be a pivotal role in the months ahead.
“Let’s see what [Truss] does,” said the same Sunak backer. “If she defines herself very effectively and positively in the next two, three weeks, it could be all right. If not, people won’t have much of a reason to hold back.”