Liz Truss, foreign secretary, mistimed her entrance for her Tory leadership launch event at Westminster and at its conclusion she failed to remember the way out. It symbolized a campaign struggling to find its bearings.
Truss is the anointed candidate of Boris Johnson loyalists and wants to be the flag bearer of the small-state, low-tax, pro-Brexit wing of the Conservative party. But so far, she remains stuck in third place.
On Thursday, in the second ballot of Tory MPs about who should succeed Johnson as party leader and prime minister, Truss secured 64 votes — 14 more than in the previous round — but still trailed trade minister Penny Mordaunt on 83 and former chancellor Rishi Sunak on 101.
The next few days will be crucial for Truss — who described herself as “the leader of the free world in opposing Putin” — as she battles to get on to the final shortlist of two candidates after further voting by Tory MPs. Party members will then choose the winner.
Televised debates are scheduled this weekend as the candidates make their pitch in public hustings. Truss, a more experienced media performer than Mordaunt, will hope to score some points.
In the next ballot of Tory MPs on Monday, Truss will hope to pick up many of the 27 votes secured on Thursday by the pro-Brexit attorney-general Suella Braverman, who was eliminated from the contest. “The next round feels better,” said Simon Clarke, a Treasury minister and Truss backer.
By presenting herself as the right-wing candidate, Truss will also aim to gain some of the 49 votes that went to Kemi Badenoch, the former equalities minister, if she is knocked out. Badenoch, however, will hope she can usurp Truss as the “stop Penny” candidate.
“The right needs to unite,” said one cabinet minister supporting Truss. Johnson’s allies, determined to stop what they regard as the “treacherous” Sunak, will do everything they can to help her.
Some Truss supporters are now briefing against Mordaunt — one said the trade minister was such a novice she would need “stabilisers” if she made it to Downing Street — in a sign of the contest becoming nasty.
Truss’s official campaign launch on Thursday served up some red meat to the party’s low-tax, pro-Brexit wing.
But Tory MPs noted there was something stilted about her performance. After she was introduced by Kwasi Kwarteng, business secretary, there was an awkward delay while the audience awaited Truss’s arrival. Later, in a video clip widely shared on social media, she struggled to find the exit.
Truss said she would cut taxes, shrink the state and challenge Brussels by pushing ahead with her legislation to override the contentious post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland contained in Johnson’s withdrawal agreement with the EU.
The foreign secretary’s pledges highlighted how far she has moved in political terms over the years, including by opposing Brexit in the 2016 EU referendum. She has been dubbed “the Brexiters’ favorite Remainer”.
While at university, she was president of the Oxford Liberal Democrats, but after graduating joined the Conservatives, inspired by former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
On Thursday Truss vowed to reverse Sunak’s national insurance rise introduced while the chancellor and his plan to increase corporation tax from 19 percent to 25 percent.
Truss said she would be “honest” about her economic plan, although her suggestion that she could fund her program by rescheduling Covid-19 debt attracted scrutiny from economists.
Professor Jonathan Portes of King’s College London said he was bemused by Truss’s suggestion that the Treasury was planning to pay off public debt accumulated during the coronavirus pandemic.
He added that because Sunak’s plan to improve the public finances did not involve paying down debt, Truss’s proposals did not provide any more headroom for tax cuts. “If she is proposing to change the fiscal rules, she should reveal what changes she wants to make publicly,” said Portes.
Truss’s record as foreign secretary and international trade secretary have provided her with the opportunity to present herself as a Thatcherite free trader, now standing up to Russian president Vladimir Putin after his invasion of Ukraine.
As trade secretary Truss regularly topped a poll of Tory members’ views of cabinet ministers by ConservativeHome, a blog, but subsequent scrutiny of her trade deal with Australia has presented it in a less favorable light.
New data obtained under freedom of information laws, and first reported by Politico this week, showed that Truss was warned by officials that the post-Brexit trade deals with Australia and New Zealand would damage UK farming and food processing industries.
At the time the Department of International Trade finalized the Australia deal in December 2021, Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, described it as “one-sided” and “damaging” to British farming.
One government insider said: “DIT failed on some key offensive areas in the Australia deal but Truss, [the then Brexit minister] David Frost and Boris Johnson were so desperate to sign it, they just caved in across the board.”
From the EU perspective, Truss’s messaging as foreign secretary has sometimes been seen as her looking to curry favor with the Conservative party, rather than tackling substantive challenges abroad.
Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, a think-tank, said Truss’s style had not always gone down well in Brussels and major EU capitals like Paris and Berlin. “They feel as if she treats the diplomatic world like it’s the Tory party conference,” he added.