So who the hell is Liz Truss, anyway? Even the Brits aren't exactly sure

Yep, the U.K. has a new prime minister, for now. But Boris Johnson is leering over her shoulder and won't go away

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 6, 2022 6:59PM (EDT)

New Prime Minister Liz Truss outside 10 Downing Street, London, after meeting Queen Elizabeth II and accepting her invitation to become Prime Minister and form a new government, Tuesday September 6, 2022 (James Manning/PA Images via Getty Images)
New Prime Minister Liz Truss outside 10 Downing Street, London, after meeting Queen Elizabeth II and accepting her invitation to become Prime Minister and form a new government, Tuesday September 6, 2022 (James Manning/PA Images via Getty Images)

It's not entirely fair to describe Liz Truss, the brand new prime minister of the United Kingdom, as "Boris Johnson in heels." But the salient point here might be that Truss herself would not find that insulting. 

For better or worse (and it's not super-likely to be for better), Truss' tenure will be defined by the bloated ego and oversize personality of her mischievous-schoolboy predecessor, who on his way out the door compared himself to Cincinnatus, the Roman statesman who — according to historical accounts of uncertain veracity — was summoned back from retirement on his modest farm to assume dictatorial powers in 458 BC. 

When Truss was announced on Monday as winner of the Conservative Party's arcane internal leadership struggle — and by extension the incoming prime minister — she gave a brief speech in which she called Johnson her "friend" and thanked him for "getting Brexit done" and leading the Tories to their whopping 2019 election victory. That struck me as more than a routine effort to mend fences with the ousted leader and his wounded supporters; it was a ritual incantation, meant to keep the imprisoned demon in his box. When we see that in a horror movie, we all know it's not going to work, and such is almost certainly the case here as well.

On this side of the Atlantic, the media is overloaded with quasi-informative explainers about who Truss is, how and why she has landed in 10 Downing Street and what her arrival might mean both for Britain's future and to the "special relationship" between the U.K. and the U.S. All of which is understandable, since even the British public is mildly puzzled by their nation's new parliamentary leader, and not at all sure how long she will last or whether she's anything more than a placeholder — either for the long-delayed return to power of the Labour Party under its neither/nor center-left milquetoast leader, Keir Starmer, or for the triumphant comeback of Boris Johnson himself (in the role of Cincinnatus or Donald Trump or Darth Vader, or all three at once).

Even the British public is mildly puzzled by Liz Truss, and not at all sure whether she's a placeholder — either for a long-delayed Labour Party victory or for the triumphant comeback of Boris Johnson himself.

So there are a lot of things you can learn about Liz Truss from all the journalistic profiles on offer, and some of them are certainly helpful in understanding her as a person of no evident ideology or principles who has clawed her way to the top job in British politics on pure ambition, shrewd instincts and a dramatic sense of the moment. She grew up in what she has called a "left-wing" family that doesn't sound like anything of the sort — in American parlance, her parents were, at most, nice liberals — and at Oxford was a student leader in the Liberal Democrats, a centrist third party that has flickered in and out of relevance in recent decades, electing a few polite members of Parliament without the slightest chance of ever holding real power. Grasping that reality, Truss became at first a moderate or "wet" Tory who opposed the 2016 Brexit referendum before recanting entirely and attaching herself to Johnson's populist-nationalist movement, whose "policies" have amounted to making impossible promises in all directions and then making decisions in desperation at the last possible minute.

There's no close cognate to Liz Truss in American politics, and there's definitely nothing similar to the bizarre intra-party process that has landed her in Downing Street. Maybe we could say that in highly approximate fashion Truss hopes to play the role that Ron DeSantis hopes to play in the 2024 Republican primaries — that is, the true believer who will follow the plan laid out by the Founder, but without quite so much outright lying and obvious criminality and bad PR. 

But even within that analogy, we have to imagine that instead of the relatively open U.S. primary system, party leaders were chosen exclusively by people who have signed up for every possible partisan email blast, reliably attend boring and tendentious meetings of local party organizations every month or so and write checks not just to candidates they like but to the parties themselves. In other words, people with no lives who most of us would find endlessly irritating. So Truss was "elected" by a vote of roughly 160,000 official Conservative Party members, which is around one-third of 1 percent of the total British electorate. 

Truss accurately perceived that those hardcore Tories — disproportionately older white people who live in affluent suburban or exurban areas of southern England — still loved Boris Johnson and saw no reason why he should be driven from office over a bit of after-hours carousing and lying about it, or for covering up sexual assault and lying about that, or for, well, God knows what, but in the name of merciful heaven, which of us, when young, hasn't done plenty of that? (If you know what I mean.)

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So in one of the many ways that Liz Truss has not just grasped a poisoned chalice but drained it to the dregs, she ran for party leader as the closest thing available to Boris Johnson, and after Johnson had briefly tested the wind to see if there was any imaginable Trump-recount method by which he could undo his own resignation, he more or less gave her his wink-and-nod endorsement. Elected Conservative MPs had largely come to detest and mistrust Johnson — and more important, to view him as politically toxic — and preferred Rishi Sunak, Truss' final-round opponent, a Thatcher-style budget-cutter with a Goldman Sachs pedigree who would have become (in an inscrutable irony difficult to calculate) Britain's first nonwhite prime minister.

Truss comes to power with no popular mandate, facing a grave political and economic crisis. She may have to embrace policies the Labour Party would once have rejected as too much socialism.

But in a grudging half-concession to democracy the party had agreed to leave the final verdict up to the so-called membership, a decision it is likely to richly and deeply regret. So it is that Britain gets its third woman PM, and without dwelling on that too much it seems like an ambiguous victory for feminism.

Liz Truss comes to power in Westminster with nothing resembling a popular mandate, facing widespread political discontent and economic near-catastrophe. Whether Brexit, global inflation or the Ukraine war are most to blame is a question for scholars, but the combination has put Britain in a weaker position than any other major Western nation. Growth and employment are stagnant, supply-chain issues continue to pile up and with the coldest, wettest part of the year only weeks away, energy prices are projected to double or triple without government intervention. British people are never in a great mood, historically speaking, but right about now things are pretty dire.

Truss may well have to embrace policies that the Labour Party would once have rejected as too much socialism: If she doesn't pour money into shoring up the health care bureaucracy and either freeze energy prices or subsidize consumers' winter bills, the political cost will be unacceptable; if she does those things, the government will continue to run up massive deficits and budgets elsewhere will be slashed indiscriminately. She faces a national election by the end of 2024, which is theoretically enough time to figure some of this stuff out, but also enough time for the tiny universe of voters who selected her to realize that the other guy, the one they liked — the one who reminded them of that mad character they were at school with; they couldn't possibly tell you half the things that lad got up to! — is hovering in the background, leering over her shoulder.

One American commentator this week suggested that Boris Johnson will haunt Liz Truss' premiership like Banquo's ghost in "Macbeth," which is a nice literary flourish but not quite right. He looks, and acts, a lot more like the malicious doll Chucky of B-minus horror franchise fame, doesn't he? We all know that Chucky's getting out of the closet eventually — in fact, we want him to. It's what we came for.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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Analysis Boris Johnson Britain British Politics Conservative Party Liz Truss U.k. Politics United Kingdom