‘The wrong kind of woman’: The early years of Liz Truss

We need more women MPs, but they must be prepared to take a bit of flak.
Liz Truss, 2018

‘What does Liz Truss even know about farming?’ a Tory member wondered in 2009, as he learnt the identity of his new parliamentary candidate. ‘I don’t assume much.’[1] That was a little unfair to a future environment secretary, let alone to someone who would make her name denouncing the disgrace of cheese imports, while opening up new pork markets. But it was far from unusual at the time. The adoption of Truss as candidate for South-West Norfolk was a big moment in the reinvention of the Conservative Party, and not everyone was happy about it.

It’s not the most obvious background for a woman being talked of as a future Tory prime minister. In the early 1980s, at the height of CND’s popularity, Elizabeth Truss was to be found on demos chanting ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out’. She did, however, have an excuse: ‘I probably didn’t know what I was saying. I was seven at the time.’[2]

Her father was a professor of pure mathematics, her mother a nurse and a teacher, and neither was a fan of Margaret Thatcher. ‘I was brought up in a very left-wing household,’ she remembered. ‘We spent a lot of time talking about politics at home. We went to the camp at Greenham Common.’ For one CND demo, ‘we had made some nuclear bombs made out of carpet rolls – ours didn’t quite work because it had floral wallpaper on it.’[3)

Growing up in Leeds as the child of middle-class liberals, she was sent to the local comprehensive school, where she encountered much the same values as she did at home: ‘All my teachers were Labour supporters.’ But, she claimed later, she was already having her doubts. ‘Quite a lot of my ideas came from what I experienced at my school. There was an attitude of defeatism, a lot of lip service paid to equality but in reality people were slipping through the net.’[4]

She might have followed her father’s specialism and studied maths – she got two A-levels in the subject – but instead, in common with virtually every politician of her generation, she did PPE at Oxford. She doesn’t seem to have made a huge impact. Guardian journalist Tanya Gold was a fellow student, and remembered her as ‘a library-bound anorak, with no lingering smell of depravity about her small, neat form’.[5]

Nonetheless, she became president of the Oxford University Liberal Democrats, in which capacity she spoke at the 1994 party conference, calling for the abolition of the monarchy. ‘We Liberal Democrats believe in opportunity for all. We believe in fairness and common sense,’ she declared. ‘We do not believe people are born to rule.’[6] She failed to persuade, and the proposal to have a directly elected non-executive president was rejected on a show of hands. She would later describe the speech as a ‘youthful indiscretion’.[7]

She was also elected to the national executive committee of the LibDems youth and student wing, but it wasn’t a relationship that was destined to last. ‘In those days the party was going through a particularly soggy social-democrat phase,’ a contemporary said in later years. ‘I think she was appalled both at how shambolic it was and how many Trots there were.’[8]

Her erstwhile colleague Alex Wilcox remembered the episode somewhat differently. She was ‘a self-styled radical Liberal Democrat who kept attacking me when I was chair of the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students because I wasn’t left-wing enough,’ he recalled; ‘a complete and utter egomaniac pain in the backside, incapable of working in a team.’[9]

In any event, Truss was not long for the party. Her time at Oxford had radicalised her. ‘I had never met anyone of my own age that was a Tory, so going to university and seeing people who were Tories and who believed in what I believed in was an eye-opener.’[10] In 1996 she abandoned the LibDems and joined the Conservatives, just as the party reached its lowest ebb, battered and bruised from its civil war over Europe, losing the will to govern – in office but not in power, in Norman Lamont’s words.

Her timing was impeccable. John Major was certain to lose the next election, but it was equally certain that the Tories would return. They always did. And although the scale of the defeat in 1997 was cataclysmic, and the road back was longer than anyone foresaw, Truss was perfectly placed to rise with the party’s fortunes.

Even so, some of those childhood lessons lingered, and she was reluctant to talk about the prime minister against whom she’d demonstrated. ‘Margaret Thatcher was quite a long time ago,’ she insisted in 2009. ‘We have new battles to fight. My personal philosophy is about giving people the opportunity to make their own decisions.’ Which, as it happens, was also Margaret Thatcher’s personal philosophy.[11]

She went to work for Shell, before qualifying as a management accountant, and, two years after joining the party, she was standing for the Tories in local elections in Greenwich. The big moment came in 2000 – the same year she married Hugh O’Leary, finance director of a property company – when she was selected as the parliamentary candidate for Hemsworth in West Yorkshire.

It was a hopeless cause. The constituency had been Labour since it was created in 1918, and at one time had been the party’s safest seat, with 85 per cent support. But she was only 25 years old; a candidature like this was the apprenticeship a potential high-flier should expect. In the 2001 election, Truss achieved a 4.4 swing, some way short of the 26.4 per cent needed to oust the incumbent, Jon Trickett, but more than double the national average.

She tried again for the next election, applying – and sometimes being shortlisted – for a series of seats, though initially without success. She lost out in Surrey Heath (to Michael Gove), Kensington & Chelsea (Malcolm Rifkind) and Broxbourne (Charles Walker). Then she got lucky.

Calder Valley in West Yorkshire was a Labour constituency, but it used to be Tory until the Blair landslide of 1997, and it was definitely winnable: last time round the Conservative candidate Sue Catling had reduced the deficit to just 6.5 per cent. Catling was selected as candidate again for the 2005 contest but was then ‘unceremoniously dumped’ by the local party, largely because she was alleged to have had an affair with the married chairman of the local association.[12] In her place came Liz Truss, triumphing over a field that was, unusually for the party, entirely female. (‘It wasn’t an all-woman shortlist,’ explained Central Office. ‘It was a shortlist that just happened to be all women.’)[13]

The party had high hopes for Truss and, to help her learn the ropes, she had been assigned to work with the MP Mark Field. He was not hugely experienced – he’d only been elected himself in 2001 – but he was eleven years her senior, and was already the party’s culture spokesperson. Not everyone was a fan; he gave ‘every appearance of a human oil slick, not helped by his heavy-handedness with the hair tint,’ was the verdict of Melanie McDonagh.[14] He did have some redeeming features, though; asked to name his favourite album, at least he didn’t focus-group his answer, opting for Swing Out Sister’s 1987 debut It’s Better to Travel. ‘It brings back wonderful memories of my undergraduate days in the mid-to-late 1980s,’ he reflected. ‘It still brings me out in goosepimples and smiles.’[15]

Field came to campaign for Truss in Calder Valley and, according to a local activist, it was immediately clear that ‘there was more to their relationship than met the eye’.[16] Indeed, they were having an affair, and a fairly long-lived one at that, spanning eighteen months, not just a brief dalliance. ‘The Tories have a system of established MPs acting as mentors to young activists,’ a helpful colleague would later tell the press, ‘but it seems Mark took his mentoring duties more seriously than intended.’[17]

Both Field and Truss were married and, given the circumstances of her predecessor’s deselection, it was all most unfortunate. But with the election looming, this wasn’t a time for anyone to rock the boat. In May 2005 Truss recorded a 1.8 per cent swing and reduced the Labour lead to just under 1,400 votes. (The constituency was finally to fall to the Tories in 2010.)

The following month, the affair with Field ended. ‘When Truss gave birth nine months later to a daughter, the rumour mill churned,’ recorded the Sunday Times[18], though as the Daily Mail was quick to add, she ‘has told friends that her husband is the father of the baby.’[19] Meanwhile, Field’s wife had found out and had begun divorce proceedings on the grounds of his adultery.

The story of Truss’s affair with Field broke in May 2006, when her name was included in the Tories’ A-list of candidates, alongside the likes of Zac Goldsmith, Sayeeda Warsi, chick-lit novelist Louise Bagshawe and Coronation Street actor Adam Rickett.

These were the favoured choices of the new leader, David Cameron, as he sought to detoxify the Tory brand. Women and ethnic minorities were to be promoted to show that the party was, like, completely chilled about the diversity of modern Britain. Truss fitted in perfectly. She was young, attractive and intelligent; she’d been to a northern comprehensive, which was good, and was now ensconced in the agreeable environs of Greenwich, which was better still; even the fact that she’d once been in the LibDems was a plus, boosting her metropolitan liberal credentials. In short, she was one of ‘Cameron’s Cuties’ – a media phrase that was intended to echo ‘Blair’s Babes’ and which happily never caught on. (Nor did the later ‘Dave’s Darlings’.)

But the publicity surrounding her affair came close to derailing her. Being portrayed in the press as a homewrecker was not a good look, and she had no luck in finding a new constituency to fight. She was talked about as a candidate for Bromley & Chislehurst after the death of Eric Forth, and even made the shortlist for Esher & Walton (losing out to Dominic Raab), but she swiftly faded from view.

She returned in a new guise. She had long since left Shell and become head of public affairs at Cable & Wireless, but took voluntary redundancy in a restructuring in March 2005, and went on to a similar post with PR consultancy The Communication Group. Then in 2008 came the chance to re-enter the public sphere, joining a public-services think-tank as deputy director. As the Mail on Sunday put it:

Glamourous Tory Liz Truss, who shot to minor fame for having an affair with swarthy former front-bencher Mark Field, is reinventing herself as a boring policy wonk, taking a post at the think-tank Reform. Ambitious Liz hopes it will boost her chances of becoming an MP at the next election.[20]

She soon become a regular media presence, launching studies and reports with friendly soundbites on subjects ranging from mathematics teaching (‘We need a cultural revolution to transform maths from geek to chic’)[21] to transport policy: ‘The UK is on a road to nowhere.’[22] She complained about the NHS wasting money on ‘banal’ advertising about diet and exercise, and proposed £30 billion cuts to public spending.[23]

She also became a regular blogger on the Telegraph’s website, where she complained that public services – whether education or policing – had been ‘nationalised and politicised’, and praised the way that the private sector, in the shape of Tesco and Easyjet, ‘appears to be delivering the comprehensive ideal’.[24] And she was to be found calling for the election of ‘local justice commissioners, responsible for policing, prosecution, legal aid and correctional services within a local authority area’.[25]

The think-tanking paid off. In October 2009, she finally got selected as the candidate for a nice safe constituency; the Tories had taken South-West Norfolk in 1964 and held it ever since, with Gillian Shephard the most distinguished member. Truss was so impressive at the selection meeting that she won on the first ballot, with over half the votes.

And then came the storm.

Her return to electoral politics inevitably meant that the papers took the chance to remind readers of the Mark Field story from three years back. And the good Tories of Norfolk were horrified by the revelation of her adultery. ‘We were looking for a clean, new, fresh candidate,’ complained one. ‘She is the wrong kind of woman.’[26] Another protested: ‘I don’t care what passes for decency in the Notting Hill set, but people in this part of the country believe in proper standards.’[27]

Even more than the affair, they insisted, the real issue was that no one had told them of her past. Why not? To which came the retort: Well, why didn’t you look her up? ‘If SW Norfolk Tories are so incompetent that they can’t even Google, that’s their look-out,’ blogged Iain Dale, unsympathetically. ‘Their social attitudes are Neanderthal.’[28] Some of the party faithful found this a little insulting: ‘They make out we’re stupid, saying details of her affair were on Google, but no one in Norfolk knows how to use Google.’[29]

Within days, there were calls for her to face a deselection meeting, but the leadership was prepared to fight her corner. Cameron backed her, phoning one of her leading critics, the wonderfully named Sir Jeremy Bagge, to warn him that this could destabilise the entire detoxification project: ‘it could have a ripple effect across the country’.[30]

Not everyone viewed that as an unappealing prospect. For those Tories who resented the whole A-list business – and there were many of them – Liz Truss became a symbol of this metropolitan project that parachuted in Londoners to places they’d barely heard of. ‘We are sick of being told by glitzy grandees what is good for us,’ thundered the local paper. ‘We insist on Norfolk MPs who put Norfolk first.’[31] In return, the glitzy grandees were said to refer to the locals as the Turnip Taliban, terminology that further inflamed the sense of grievance: ‘We’re used to carrot-crunchers but Turnip Taliban is offensive.’[32] (A subsequent coinage, Suffolk Swedes, made less impact.)

As a host of commentators, from Karren Brady to Julia Hartley-Brewer to Jan Moir, pointed out, it was monstrously unfair that Truss should be threatened with deselection while Field was not; he was still sitting on an 8,000-majority in the Cities of London & Westminster. Others felt that in the increasingly bitter dispute, a talented candidate was in danger of being lost.

Janet Daley came out in support: ‘she is an extremely able and quite exceptionally intelligent political thinker with a lively understanding of the policies which could contribute to a new progressive Tory programme.’[33] It was a verdict with which Daniel Hannan agreed.[34] So too did Tim Montgomerie: ‘Liz is exactly the kind of MP who will enrich the Commons: intelligent, an independent thinker, she doesn’t come from a conventional Tory background but is nonetheless a champion of grassroots Conservatives.’[35]

Initially, Truss refused to comment on the controversy – ‘It’s an old story,’ she insisted[36] – but eventually she was obliged to apologise. And she tried to laugh off the incident: ‘With hindsight, I would have taken out a billboard!’[37] When it came to the deselection meeting, the leadership had leant hard enough on locals to save her career; she saw off the hostile motion with a vote of 132–37.

She survived and she thrived. In 2010 she increased the Tory share in South West Norfolk and did so again in each of the three subsequent elections. By 2019 she was taking 69 per cent, the highest anyone had achieved since the constituency was created in 1885.

The whole incident was widely seen as a victory for the leader: ‘How Cameron mashed up the Turnip Taliban,’ as the Daily Mail headline put it.[38] It might even, some commentators suggested, be his Clause 4 moment, when he took on the dinosaurs in his party and won.

Certainly his enemies saw the leadership’s behaviour as consciously divisive. It was ‘another poisonous example of alienating the core vote,’ wrote Simon Heffer in the Telegraph.[39] There was danger in the strategy, warned Stephen Glover in the Mail: ‘If Mr Cameron continues to alienate the grass roots of his party, he will wake up one day in two, three or four years’ time to find out that they are not there when he needs them.’[40] And in due course, Cameron’s policy agenda, particularly his pursuit of same-sex marriage, drove legions of activists out of the party, many of them heading over to UKIP.

In retrospect, even Cameron might regret the communication breakdown, but in 2009 the prospect of hardliners leaving didn’t much trouble him. He didn’t really have a lot of time for the Turnip Taliban. A couple of weeks after Liz Truss survived her deselection meeting, he made an after-dinner speech to the Lord’s Taverners and tried out a joke: ‘A Norfolk farmer asked a nice chap to a party and said, “There’ll be heavy drinking, violence and rough sex – all right, boy?” The chap nervously agreed. When he asked, “How many will be there?” the farmer grinned. “Just you and me.”‘[41]

As with all the press portraits on Lion & Unicorn, this piece is drawn almost entirely from contemporary newspaper accounts. It is liable, therefore, to be wildly inaccurate.

press profiles of other Tories:

[1] Independent 17 November 2009

[2] Sun 24 July 2014

[3] Observer 12 July 2009; Sun 24 July 2014

[4] Observer 12 July 2009

[5] Guardian 3 November 2009

[6] Independent 21 September 1994

[7] Guardian 31 October 2009

[8] Times 17 July 2014

[9] Sunday Times 8 November 2009

[10] Telegraph web edition 24 July 2014

[11] Observer 12 July 2009

[12] Yorkshire Post 2 May 2005 & 26 March 2007

[13] Times 18 March 2005

[14] Daily Telegraph 2 November 2009

[15] Herald 27 July 2006

[16] Mail on Sunday 8 November 2009

[17] Daily Mail 20 May 2006

[18] Sunday Times 8 November 2009

[19] Daily Mail 20 May 2006

[20] Mail on Sunday 6 January 2008

[21] Daily Mail, Daily Mirror 3 June 2008

[22] Scotsman 14 October 2009

[23] Mail on Sunday 25 October 2009

[24] Telegraph blog 2 September, 25 June 2008

[25] Sunday Telegraph 14 September 2008

[26] Sunday Mirror 25 October 2009

[27] Mail on Sunday 1 November 2009

[28] Independent on Sunday 1 November 2009

[29] Daily Mail 2 November 2009

[30] Evening Standard 13 November 2009

[31] Eastern Daily Press, quoted Guardian 31 October 2009

[32] Mail on Sunday 15 November 2009

[33] Telegraph blog 17 November 2009

[34] Telegraph blog 24 November 2009

[35] Independent 16 November 2009

[36] Daily Mirror 28 October 2009

[37] Daily Telegraph 7 November 2009

[38] Daily Mail 18 November 2009

[39] Daily Telegraph 21 November 2009

[40] Daily Mail 19 November 2009

[41] Mail on Sunday 13 December 2009


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