‘I don’t believe in guardrails’

‘I don’t believe in guardrails’

Liz Truss would love it if, for one week only, this feature could be known as “Lunch with the Deep State”. After all, only a few weeks ago, Truss launched an audacious attempt to become the FT’s new global brand ambassador, waving a copy of the newspaper around at a rightwing conference in Washington, declaring that the FT was a friend of the “deep state” and helped to terminate her two-month premiership. I say I’ll see what I can do.

Truss explains that she is having Lunch with the FT because “you’ve got to know the enemy” — before clarifying that she doesn’t regard the FT as part of the deep state per se, more a kind of flying buttress propping it up. Along with other sinister elements in a leftwing “anti-growth coalition” — she has singled out “Brexit deniers”, people with podcasts and those living in north London town houses — the FT apparently helped to ensure that Truss’s time in Downing Street famously had the longevity of a supermarket lettuce.

Truss is laughing about all of this. She laughs a lot during a two-hour lunch in an 18th-century Norfolk coaching inn — although many across the UK and in her party do not see the funny side. Rishi Sunak, the current prime minister, is still trying to repair the political damage caused by his predecessor, while many homeowners are still paying the price for the spike in interest rates that accompanied her wild 49 days in office.

Over Sauvignon Blanc and well-prepared local fare, Truss gives free rein to her belief that her experiment with radical free-market, deregulatory, tax-cutting Conservatism would have succeeded, had it not been for incompetent and hostile officials from the deep state, aided and abetted by weak-willed Conservative members of parliament. Weren’t officials simply acting as guardrails, I venture, trying to stop her committing grievous bodily harm to the British economy? “I don’t believe in guardrails,” she says.

Truss has chosen the Bedingfeld Arms for lunch, a gastropub overlooking Oxborough’s partially ruined St John’s church, which collapsed after a storm in 1948. I mentally thank Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister, who left her party in a similar state after departing Downing Street in October 2022, for providing her own metaphors.

Truss is a regular at this pub in the heart of her rural constituency, a seat that she first won in 2010 and intends to contest at the next general election. “There are no woke hostelries in South West Norfolk, I can tell you,” she declares. Sunak’s allies hope she will stay in Norfolk when the election campaign comes, well out of sight of the national electorate: Truss had an approval rating of minus 70 when she left office. When she recently posted a “Happy Easter” message on social media, accompanied by a picture of her cradling a Norfolk lamb, there was a torrent of mockery and abuse. “Please don’t kill it,” said one reply.

But anyone hoping to find Truss in a contrite mood will be disappointed. Looking healthy and happy — a sharp contrast to the glazed-eyed and haunted figure who left Downing Street 18 months ago — she is about to embark on a tour to promote her ambitiously titled book Ten Years to Save the West: Lessons From the Only Conservative in the Room. Truss is endowed with such self-belief — some might say a total lack of self-awareness — that she thinks she knows how.

“I want to lay out what the situation is in British governance and the British government,” she says. “My view is that it doesn’t work. We have a very, very powerful bureaucracy and quangocracy that, essentially, has resisted change. And I think the Conservative party and politicians in general have tended to go along with that, rather than challenge it. I challenged it and I have the scars on my back, it’s fair to say.”

Truss was brought up in a staunchly leftwing family: her mother was a nurse and her father a professor of mathematics. As a student she joined the centre-left Liberal Democrats and despised Margaret Thatcher, who is now her heroine. She also backed Remain in the 2016 EU referendum before becoming an advocate for Brexit. “My views have changed and I’ve acknowledged that,” she says, but adds: “I’m very much a free-marketeer, small-state Conservative. That’s at my absolute core.”

Truss became prime minister at the age of 47 on September 6 2022 following the defenestration of Boris Johnson, whose lies about Downing Street parties during Covid lockdowns finally caught up with him. Truss, with her bracing rightwing rhetoric and conscious attempt to evoke memories of Thatcher, won the hearts of Tory members, who picked her over her rival Sunak. Two days after Truss’s arrival in Downing Street, Queen Elizabeth died, putting politics on hold for two weeks. The Queen had urged her in vain to “pace herself”. Indeed, if it had not been for that period of mourning, it is possible that Truss’s 49-day premiership may not have lasted as long as it did.

She admits she was in a hurry to get things done. “I think that post-Brexit we should have gone for a much bolder economic model that was, essentially, more like Singapore on steroids than a Norway on Valium approach.” She claims that the system will always fight back against an agenda that includes policies such as cutting the size of the government, stopping illegal immigration or cutting taxes.

Truss is hitting full flow and isn’t about to be interrupted by the arrival of a waitress asking what sort of Sauvignon Blanc she would like. “White,” she laughs. A bottle of Chilean Caracara duly arrives. “Just pour it,” she says, doing away with the niceties. During her time as foreign secretary, Truss was said to have had “a rider” that a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc should always be in the minibar of her hotel room on overseas trips. She says that isn’t true, but concedes: “What you find is that people always want to supply you with what you want.”

Anyway, back to the deep state. “When I took the job on, I realised it would be tough and there would be lots of resistance, but I don’t think I realised quite how ruthless the people that didn’t want those policies to happen would be.” She says Britain’s institutions “have been captured, broadly speaking, by leftwing ideology”, resistant to the kind of tax-cutting, state-shrinking, electric shock treatment that she proposed.

She accuses the FT of being part of a “broader groupthink” that shares the same set of ideas. “You’re an establishment media organ, that’s what you are,” she says, before admitting some degree of guilt by association by confirming: “I do read the FT.” Even groups such as the National Trust, long seen as the bedrock of Tory middle Britain, have become infected by “wokey ideology”, according to Truss.


Bedingfeld Arms
Oxborough, King’s Lynn PE33 9PS

Sauvignon Blanc x 2 glasses £12
Complimentary carrot soup
King prawns in garlic £10
Beef bourguignon £20
Glazed roast chicken £18
Norfolk cheese platter £10
Espresso £2
Double espresso £2.60
Total (inc tax and tip) £84.60

But at the heart of this leftwing cabal identified by Truss are the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Office for Budget Responsibility, the official forecaster that Truss sidelined ahead of the “KamiKwasi” “mini” Budget delivered by her chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng in September 2022, with its £45bn of market-spooking unfunded tax cuts. A few weeks later she was bundled out of office.

Before Truss can expand on this theory, it is time to order some food. She goes for a ham hock terrine and beef bourguignon. I go for king prawns in garlic and chilli oil and glazed roast chicken with lemon parsley dressing and celeriac.

Truss returns to the events of her premiership. “You had these three very powerful bodies, the Treasury, OBR and the Bank of England. All of them have been very content, essentially running economic policy for quite a long time with minimal interference from ministers and they don’t like being challenged.”

Truss sacked Sir Tom Scholar, the Treasury’s respected permanent secretary, almost as soon as she entered Downing Street and admits she thought about firing BoE governor Sir Andrew Bailey too. “But then that would have caused a market crisis.”

She adds: “Did Kwasi and I say everything and do everything absolutely perfectly? Probably not, but did we have the support from within the organisation to actually do what we set out to do? No we didn’t.” And that is about as close as Truss gets to admitting any personal responsibility for the meltdown of her premiership.

She blames “incompetence” at the BoE for failing to realise that the pensions industry might explode when exposed to a sudden spike in interest rates and accuses weak or disloyal Conservative MPs for failing to stick with her when times got tough. “I think there were some in the party that didn’t want me to succeed,” she said.

The starters have arrived, or rather they haven’t. Truss’s terrine is replaced, mysteriously, by a mini carrot soup, which she enjoys without complaint: “I think it has parsnip in it,” she says approvingly. The chilli prawns arrive, as billed.

Returning to the traumatic end to her premiership, Truss had to unravel the mini-Budget and sacked her old friend Kwarteng, who learnt of his fate via Twitter as he rushed back from an IMF meeting in Washington. “It was pretty awful,” she says. A few days later, Kwarteng’s successor Jeremy Hunt dismantled most of the rest of her economic strategy and Truss had to explain the capitulation at a gruesome Downing Street press conference, at which she seemed to be in a trance.

“It was bad, yes,” she says. “The press conference, frankly, was neither here nor there. It was more having to reverse the policies — policies that I knew were right, basically — at gunpoint. That was depressing and upsetting.” The embodiments of Truss’s despised establishment — Simon Case, cabinet secretary, BoE governor Bailey and James Bowler, the new Treasury permanent secretary — told her she had no choice and that Britain was on the brink of an economic calamity. “I was the last holdout,” she says. “I was threatened with a gilts crisis — the British government not being able to fund its debt. I’m a patriot. I couldn’t countenance that.”

The main courses have arrived. Truss says that the beef is tender and delicious. The chicken is great too and a bowl of chips is quickly shared and devoured. The Norfolk skies darken and rain begins to fall.

Truss’s ignominious departure from Downing Street might have marked the end for most politicians. But she did not go quietly. Rather than cowering from the mockery heaped on her at home, she decided to go on the offensive, finding a new audience among Donald Trump supporters in the US, where rightwing TV channels approvingly interview her above the bleak caption “UK Prime Minister, Sept-Oct 2022”, lapping up her criticisms of Britain’s lefty establishment.

In February, she turned up in Maryland for the rightwing populist Conservative Political Action Conference, to the dismay of former colleagues, who think she is courting an American market to make money on the speaking circuit and sell her book. “It’s distressing,” said one former colleague. “She’s doubled down, gone into a bunker and only surrounded herself with people who agree with her and — more dangerously — people who embody half-truths.”

It was here, during her FT-brandishing exchange alongside Trump-whisperer Steve Bannon, that she stood smiling while the former White House adviser lavished praise on Tommy Robinson, a far-right British politician, anti-Islam campaigner and convicted criminal. Bannon called Robinson a “hero” and Truss did not bat an eyelid.

Does she regret sharing a stage with Bannon? “No.” She elaborates: “Obviously I don’t support Tommy Robinson,” she says. “It was a very noisy and busy room where lots of stuff was going on. But I think the idea that you shouldn’t talk to anyone whose views you don’t share 100 per cent is absolutely wrong.”

If she cares so much about “saving the west”, how does she square that with backing Trump for the US presidency? Wouldn’t he turn his back on Nato and Ukraine and leave the west exposed to Russian aggression? She insists Trump is committed to Nato and would continue to support Ukraine. “I would absolutely choose Trump over Biden,” she said, arguing that the world was a safer place when the former Republican president was in the White House.

Truss insists she hopes that Sunak will win the UK’s coming general election (polls suggest this is extremely unlikely), but she adds that in any event a battle is already under way for the soul of the Conservative party. “That’s what the 2022 leadership election was about — do we continue with the status quo or do we actually try to change things? It won’t be resolved until we change things, because the country wants change.” She struggles to remember when she last spoke to Sunak.

It is highly questionable whether Truss’s version of change would have been acceptable to the British electorate, as opposed to the typically elderly and rightwing Tory membership that voted her into Downing Street in 2022. But the party could well end up tacking to the right and in Truss’s direction if Sunak loses the election. I venture that this would be an electoral cul-de-sac, as elections in Britain are almost always won from the centre ground. “That’s a very conventional view, if you don’t mind me saying,” she says.

Truss dodges the question about whether she might fancy another unlikely crack at the top job in the future, but insists she still wants to win the battle of ideas: “I never wanted to be prime minister for the sake of being prime minister — I wanted to be prime minister to change things.”

A selection of Norfolk cheese has arrived — Copys Cloud, Binham Blue and Smoked Walsingham — a suitably local selection, given that Truss first pierced the public consciousness in 2014 with a bizarre speech (widely shared on social media) in which she fulminated: “We import two-thirds of our cheese. That. Is. A. Disgrace.”

The cheese is followed swiftly by coffee. Disappointingly Truss, who admits to being an espresso fiend, opts for only a single. One ally recalls how she appeared constantly “over-caffeinated” during her brief premiership. I go for a double as we prepare to venture out into the Norfolk drizzle.

Leaving the pub under the watchful gaze of a small detachment of protection officers, Truss turns and asks: “What did you think of the book? Did anything in it surprise you?”

I think for a second, then decide honesty is the best policy. “Not really,” I reply. “I’ve only had time so far to read the second half where you’re in Number 10 and it’s basically, ‘I was right and everyone else was wrong’.” Truss laughs: “I may have been a bit more self-critical in the first half.” She pauses. “Well, actually, probably not.”

George Parker is the FT’s political editor

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