PERSPECTIVE3-5 min to read

The “marmite” Prime Minister: a conversation with Liz Truss’s biographer

Our latest podcast explores why Liz Truss's premiership went so disastrously wrong - and what the UK's political future might look like. We spoke to James Heale, diary editor of the Spectator and co-author of Out of the Blue, a biography of Liz Truss published shortly after she left office.

The "marmite" Prime Minister - an exclusive interview with Liz Truss's biographer James Heale


Kate Leppard
Head of Client Service, UK Wealth Management

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Below is a transcript of Kate Leppard and James Heale’s conversation. The transcript has been edited for clarity. Their conversation took place on 19 December 2022. 

Podcast transcript

Kate Leppard Hello, my name is Kate Leppard and I'm head of Client Service at Cazenove Capital and Schroders Wealth Management. Welcome to our podcast. Today I'm delighted to be joined by James Heale, journalist and diary editor of The Spectator. James, together with a friend, Harry Cole, who's political editor of The Sun, spent the summer co-authoring Out of the Blue: The Rise and Rapid Fall of Liz Truss.

James, good morning and thank you for talking to us today.

James Heale Thank you very much, Kate.

Kate Leppard Having spent a weekend reading your book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I've been trying to work out if it was spectacularly badly timed or actually brilliantly timed. Have you been surprised by the reaction you've had to it?

James Heale I think we felt both feelings at different times, Kate. We started writing it on 20th August, a fortnight before she became Prime Minister. And at that time, we felt like she would be Prime Minister for the next two years, like a lot of the Conservative Party at the time. Around the time of the “mini- budget”, things all started to go badly wrong, but even before that, we'd had the biggest energy bailout in British peacetime history, we'd had the death of the monarch. So it was already shaping up to be quite an extraordinary time during her first month or so in power. And then around the time of the conference we thought, "Oh, my God, this is going to end badly." Thankfully, it all ended before our print deadline. So we tried to make the best of a bad situation, I think.

Kate Leppard Reading your book, Liz struck me as somebody who was either liked or vilified - very much a marmite character. Dominic Cummings clearly loathed her, there's no other way of putting it, and called her a human hand grenade. She had an unfortunate public speaking style, which seemed to follow her around - not least, her pork and cheese speech from when she was at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

She did have a mixed track record, but there were also some notable successes. I'm thinking of when she was Secretary of State for Justice, which was a really rough ride, but she managed to get extra funding for a department which had seen cuts over so many years. And then, when she became Foreign Secretary, she was successful with the Iranian hostages, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori. She had success perhaps where some other ministers didn't. What would you put that down to?

James Heale I think that you sum it up perfectly. She was a marmite character, and often it was those things which her detractors disliked which made her so admired by her fans. She was someone who always saw herself as anti-establishment, who wanted to shoot from the hip, who knew what they wanted and was quite determined. And that meant she had a determination to get things done.

When she became Prime Minister, there was a criticism that her view was too narrow but for a time, in a departmental brief, it meant she could secure her aims. As you say, she got more funding for the Ministry of Justice. At the Foreign Office, she was seen as having done a good job, which is of course why she became Prime Minister, let's not forget.

And I think perhaps her best achievement in recent years is something that we're only just finding out about now, which is calling for the declassification of intelligence on Ukraine and Russia. This was obviously very important in late 2021 and early 2022 when Russia was trying to find excuses to go to war, saying that the Ukrainians were massing on the border et cetera. Declassifying this intelligence, a world first by the way, and contrary to what some people in Whitehall were calling for, helped to show that Russia had actually been planning this for a long time and that they were the aggressors rather than the Ukrainians.

So for all those things, she won applause. And also, whether you agree with it or not, the way she got the Australia-New Zealand free trade deal through Cabinet, shows that she'd learned something, she did learn from her briefs. The perhaps naive minister of the early 2010s had matured into a more all-round politician who knew the way to get through the Whitehall jungle.

Kate Leppard Do you think the prolonged leadership battle between her and Rishi Sunak put her on the back foot right from the outset? It got very personal, it was very "blue-on-blue" - Labour didn't have to do that much by way of opposition because they were doing it all themselves.  

James Heale I think it was an extraordinarily bitter race, much more so than the one we saw later in the year in October. It was really a battle for the Tory party's soul and the direction it wanted to go in. It wasn't just the attacks, it was also more the timing. As this race went on from early July into early September, the country's economic fortunes worsened, the picture got worse. I think a lot of the country despaired as they saw these hustings going on. That's why I am somewhat sceptical that we will ever see a governing party conducting a leadership contest in this way again. And of course, October's contest was very much a reaction to that. We ended up not even having a membership ballot as a consequence, because of what happened in the summer. So it did put her on the back foot in the sense of having worse public finances and a sense of exhaustion by the time she entered Downing Street.

Kate Leppard We'll come onto the October leadership question in a moment. I suppose that the most obvious question next is, what went wrong? Supreme self-confidence, hubris, or was she just surrounded by the wrong people? What happened?

James Heale So I think the simple answer is that she tried to do too much, too fast. She was going around, according to people we spoke to, saying, "I've only got two years, I've only got two years." In late August, early September, she was in Chevening [a government-owned estate in Kent] and there was not much in the way of pushback or checks and balances on what was going into the mini budget - especially during the mourning period. I think the market was already feeling a bit jumpy about that energy price guarantee. You have the era of cheap borrowing coming to an end, and therefore we have borrowing costs becoming a public policy issue in a way they haven't been for the best part of the decade. So I think that fresh off the back of that leadership contest, having gone through the period of national mourning, the political situation in Liz Truss's mind was very different from the economic one, which was one of market volatility and a really quite negative picture in the aftermath of Putin's war. So I think they absorbed the wrong lessons. They tried to go big and bold for political reasons rather than looking at economic factors which were pointing to a different conclusion. And the simple fact is they tried to pull the levers at once and it blew up in their face.

Kate Leppard There was a lot of talk with Kwasi Kwarteng. Clearly, they had had a very close relationship.  They were neighbors living in Greenwich, they were part of the same parliamentary intake, they were politically aligned in terms of their thinking. Were they both, in combination, simply too inexperienced?

James Heale I think that they were very similar in terms of their outlook on the world. They entered Parliament on the same day. They worked very closely together in the Free Enterprise Group. And I think perhaps the danger with having such a good relationship is that there wasn't enough pushback in terms of some of their ideas and they were, to an extent, somewhat egging each other on. It's often said that the line between Number 10 and Number 11 on Downing Street is the great fault line of British politics, and we all know about partition walls and falling out with the next door neighbor.

But I think in this case, by working hand in glove - and there were briefings at the time to show this - by working in lockstep together, I'm not sure necessarily having two very strong ideologically convicted people was necessarily the best way, in the time of a very divided party, to get their message across. They both agreed and they thought all this stuff was common sense. They couldn't understand why it might not be the right timing or the right way of implementing it or the need for softer rhetoric. So I think that there might have been an element of inexperience, or perhaps naivety is a better word, in terms of understanding the political realities facing the party and the country in September 2022.

Kate Leppard Kwasi Kwarteng has been reported subsequently as saying, "I told her so. It was too much, too quickly." I think there was also perhaps an element of being a bit tone deaf in terms of, particularly the 45% tax cut, which astonished everybody.

James Heale Yes, I think that you have to remember the backdrop that we've got here. We're entering a cost-of-living crisis. We're at a time when I think a majority of voters certainly don't necessarily want a smaller state. And I think that the danger of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng was imagining themselves as the great hero and heroine of Thatcherism at a time when all the fundamentals were pointing to a different conclusion. Remember, of course, that Margaret Thatcher came into power in 1979 with a mandate and a manifesto to do all the things that she subsequently did for the country. This was three years into a five-year Parliament and there had been a clear divide between the more “blue wall” Conservative seats in the South, and the “red wall” seats in the North and different, competing demands. And I think it would've taken really, really astute footwork to navigate that. And I think they both lacked that, which is why they ended up so spectacularly falling from power, only seven weeks into office.

Kate Leppard Can we turn to the party conference, where we started to get “u-turns” and the Conservative party factions were out in force sniping from the sidelines. I'm not going to mention names in particularly but certainly former foes were there and it became almost like a pantomime. It didn't matter which way they turned, there was somebody ready to challenge or have a go. Michael Gove is one name I will mention, even though he seemed to have mentored her and maybe worked quite well with her at prior times in her career. But was that really the beginning of the end, when they started making u-turns?

James Heale Yes, it was the most extraordinary conference I've ever seen. It was rather the inverse of the traditional Labour conference, with lots of infighting. This time, the Tory one was a complete mess whereas the Labour one was about men in grey suits talking business. It was a very sharp contrast.

But the Tories, yes, it was watching former cabinet ministers going around openly briefing journalists, seeing Michael Gove do about a dozen events including one where he was next door to Jacob Rees-Mogg and journalists in the audience were simply reading out each other's quotes to each other and they would file back and keep this perpetual row going.

I saw the 45% tax cut killed before my very eyes, which was the first night at Tory conference. Everyone's thinking, "Oh, is this the bit where they bind the wounds together, put on a good show." I went outside this Tory grandee’s room and saw my co-author, Harry Cole, having a standup row with a member of Liz Truss's Number 10 team, back and forth like a game of verbal tennis. And at that point he pressed the send button and this ripple went through the room and a lot of ministers, that was how they first found out the 45% tax cut had been killed. And so everyone downed their drinks, one of them said, "Thanks for that, you've ruined my party conference," and wandered off into the night.  

Everyone was just glad it was over on that Wednesday, and after that, people were giving her months, and actually it ended up being a lot sooner than that, but it was an extraordinary conference where message discipline completely broke down. The government of the day couldn't control what its own members were saying, and party activists were telling their MPs, "This is going to be a disaster for us. You need to get rid of her."

Kate Leppard And obviously it wasn't a few weeks, it turned out to be days. Not that long after the party conference, Parliament returned and we had the vote of confidence, the fracking vote in Parliament, which seemed to fall to pieces. Nobody knew what they were doing. There were very ugly scenes within Parliament and a well-respected, long-standing Conservative MP almost in tears on the 10 o'clock news. What was happening?

James Heale Well, effectively, this vote on fracking got elevated and we were suddenly told it was going to be a vote of confidence in the government itself. It was going to be a three-line whip vote. That meant that if MPs voted against it, they were effectively voting to bring down the government, and by convention, there'd be a general election. So, MPs were being dragooned into voting for the end of the ban on fracking in England and Wales. But, at the last moment at the dispatch box, Graham Stewart gets a message which says that, actually it's not going to be a vote of confidence. And the reason for that is because the whips weren't sure they'd have the numbers to actually put it through and actually vote to repeal the ban. But as it transpired, there was a lot of confusion about what went on.

The government did win that vote quite comfortably in the end, but there was a lot of recrimination in the voting lobbies thereafter. There were tears, there were allegations of manhandling. There were calls for the chief whip, Wendy Morton, to go, and the whips office pushed back on this. We understand there were lots of threats of resignation if that went. And so at this point, you have, the government comms are a mess, the government whips office is threatening mutiny, and order had completely broken down. As you say, Sir Charles Walker went on the 10 o'clock BBC news and was just opening up his heart. And if you think that what was said in public was bad, in private, it was even worse. And that night, I think was the night when Liz Truss and Sir Graham Brady, who's the chairman of the 1922 committee, both realized the game was up, and they confirmed that the following day. Liz Truss's team learned it when they saw her getting ready on that Thursday morning to go out and deliver her speech to say that she was going to be standing down as Prime Minister.

Kate Leppard Really quite extraordinary. And then we had another leadership election. Rishi, having been nowhere for weeks, he went off radar and actually, I think to his credit, didn't really say anything to anybody, or at least not that hit the public news, not that I saw. Can he reunite the conservatives? Is he facing an uphill battle? Certainly financial markets are really stabilized. They like the idea of the responsibility, the fiscal responsibility of Rishi and Jeremy Hunt. Or, following all the budget chaos, is it simply too late?

James Heale In terms of the party, I think it's very, very difficult to see them winning another election. That's what history would suggest, going for a fifth term. That's what the current mood would suggest, and the polls would too, with Labour ahead by about 15 to 20 points. I think that everything that Rishi Sunak does, to an extent, is a reaction to what happened with Liz Truss. So you saw this in the budget statement which Jeremy Hunt made in November, effectively confirming the death of the “mini budget.” He basically talked about how respected Andrew Bailey was, how great a job he was doing as the Bank of England Governor. And that was very much the antithesis of the Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng view of the world, which was that these institutions have failed over the past decade and that new leadership was needed.

So, that, in the terms of reassuring the markets, was very much a break with Liz Truss's agenda. Also, things like the whips office. You saw this with the planning rebellion in December - the Bob Seely, Theresa Villiers amendment and the way in which the Rishi Sunak government climbed down and in effect is a kind of compromise. I imagine if Liz Truss and people like Simon Clark were still in government, they would've fought that and they would've divided their party still further. So it's a much more conciliatory tone. And I think that Rishi Sunak - he would be too modest to say this himself - but to some extent he’s won the argument in the sense that a certain wing of the party put themselves behind Liz Truss and Trussonomics and obviously it completely imploded. Therefore, there is no alternative is what some of Sunak’s allies would be saying. They've just got to band together to get to the next election and hopefully lose by only a one-term margin rather than a two-term or three-term margin, as they did in 1987.

Kate Leppard I was very struck, reading your book and looking back through history, how reminiscent the Conservative party’s current situation is of the final years of the Thatcher-Major regime and even, let's face it, the Blair-Brown era too. Maybe the party is simply exhausted and needs a refresh.

James Heale I think that they need a mission. You need a narrative to tell the voters. In 2010 to 2015, you had that with austerity and balancing the books. Boris promised in 2019 to “get Brexit done” and level up. I think people are now saying “Ok, Rishi Sunak has steadied the ship and they have basic managerial competence and markets aren't treating us like an emerging market anymore. That's great. Now what comes next?” And we've still got 18 months of the Parliament to go, and I'm not sure what the narrative or mission is going to be.

I think you're right, all governments towards the end, there's a cumulative effect, sleaze catches up with them, they look tired, the opposition has upped their game, and so there are certain echoes of that. What I would also add, of course, is that Liz Truss did join the Tory party in 1996, close to its lowest ebb. So, who knows, perhaps the next Conservative Prime Minister, after Rishi Sunak, is currently right now signing the form to join the party at its lowest ebb, ready to buy shares at the bottom of the market for when a blue chip brand does recover in value. But you are right, there are definitely echoes of the past, and that's why I think there are very few people who think that the Tories will win the next election.

Kate Leppard Can we just talk a little bit about the Labour Party and the really big shift that we have seen in their ministers and their focus under Keir Starmer? Clearly you've got Angela Rayner who's still a bit of a firebrand, but they've changed a lot. Or so they appear to have done, on the face of it. But I've got a sort of grudging admiration actually for what they've achieved and some of their spokesmen who, actually, if I think about the Labour of old, and particularly more recently under Jeremy Corbyn, actually don't sound desperately like Labour. They've really moved to the centre ground.

James Heale Yes. And in the shadow Treasury opposition, the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, you have a former Bank of England economist who was very much ostracized during the Jeremy Corbyn years and didn't serve under him on the front bench. So there's been a very sharp contrast. I saw this firsthand with the tale of two conferences, where, as I say, the Tory one was a disaster, and at the Labour one business was praising them, saying how receptive they were, and open to discussing certain things. I think they really have stepped up their game. That's why for the first time, at the time of the mini-budget, polls showed that people now expect a Labour government. Labour have been ahead in the polls for a year, in terms of preferred government, but now there's an expectation that Labour will be the next party in government.

And I think you see this in Rachel Reeves' very astute positioning. It's notable how she doesn't actually disagree with that many of the Tory policies at the time they were announced. She didn't, for instance, criticize many of the measures in the mini-budget other than the top rate of tax and the banker's bonus levy. And you see this in this holding line that Labour currently have, which is that, oh yes, they would go after non-doms. Well, that would raise about 3 billion or something like that, removing the charity status of private schools would get a couple more billion. Ultimately these sum up to about 10 billion which, given the current British economic picture, is actually not that much. But it's a useful way of assuring the markets that they're actually not that different and wouldn't do anything crazy. And I think what the Liz Truss experiment has helped is kind of bolster Labour's competence by relative comparison when you look at what the Tories have been up to. So Labour have now talked a very good game, they've stepped up their comms and have much improved since the Jeremy Corbyn years of just three years ago.

Kate Leppard It's extraordinary to think it is only three years. When I think about whoever had been in government over the last few years, if you take the pandemic and just as we are emerging from the pandemic, you had Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it was going to be a very hard job for anybody, let's face it. When you think about it, the Conservatives and the Labour Party, through Covid and through the early time of the invasion of Ukraine, actually appear to be almost working quite well together.

James Heale Yes. And now of course it's picking up the tab for that. As you say, the key difference between now and 1997, which a lot of Labour people are talking about, is that the British economy is in nowhere near as a healthy state as it was at that time. I think there was a mood shift, perhaps, in Covid.

This is what I mean about the polling suggesting that the British public don't want a smaller state, necessarily. And I think that because of the way in which the state stepped in during Covid with furlough. It was quite an ambitious thing to embark on an explicitly small-state agenda at a time when the markets are very shifty, and the government is very dependent on those markets - I think borrowing costs went up by 8 billion pounds in a day. That's more than the international aid budget which we spend each year. So it was quite difficult, where you have had these global factors and I think in recent years the government has really been reminded of their own power, with things like Covid and the energy price caps.

I think we're entering now, perhaps an age where security issues, things such as having your own energy supply, having your own supply chains, are going to be much more relevant in the minds of voters than they have been for the 30 previous years in the era of globalization. So the Liz Truss experiment and the kind of things we're discussing are very much the flashpoints and microcosms of bigger issues to come.

Kate Leppard Yes, we would certainly agree with that when thinking about the economic outlook. We're investing very globally for our clients and have seen the impact of weak sterling in client portfolios. The cost of debt has risen exponentially for the government: that has pros and cons for investors. Savers who had been getting very little support have started to benefit at long last, but it adds to the cost-of-loan crisis, with 1.3 million people on variable rate mortgages or short-dated mortgages, all of whom were trying to shelter themselves from the rising cost of energy, and suddenly their mortgages were doubling, tripling, or even more. But you're right, there’s questions around energy security, supply chain security, onshoring back from manufacturing centers, which was more Covid-driven, and reliance on places like China. So we have seen a huge shift in the public's expectations. I think back in the day, maybe the public didn't really mind too much where their energy came from or where their goods came from. That's very different today and I think it's a new challenge for government.

James Heale Yes, I quite agree. The danger is that you need to have a state which is able to do those things. And I think the assumptions of British policymaking haven't really taken the need for slack, for extra capacity, into account, which is why we've seen the army, for instance, deployed 85 times this year on various things to make up for the public sector shortfall. You're right in terms of the global picture. And I think that the tragedy is with, say Liz Truss, perhaps, is that she was very astute on something like China, in terms of the need to reorganize certain assumptions in Whitehall. But I think at the same time that the haste in which she did certain things meant that the short-to-medium term was compromised.

But these are all factors that are going to be of huge concern in the 2020s and 2030s and both parties are going to have to take account of that, in terms of, where do they find the money for this, and are we going to have an honest debate about spending versus tax cuts versus growth?

Liz Truss's assessment was that we needed economic growth. I think that's inarguable, but how do you get there in the short-to-medium term to provide that long-term growth? And at the moment, there's a lot of talk about it, but in terms of cross-party consensus, we mentioned the consensus on Covid a second ago, there doesn't seem to be too much of it, and planning's an obvious example of that. So I think perhaps the case for Liz Truss will be interesting to see, whether her thesis gets revisited in the years to come, or whether it gets completely discredited as we debate these things about the nature of the size of the state and the global economy throughout the next decade or so.

Kate Leppard Liz Truss was Prime Minister for 44 days, yet she was center stage for one of the UK's most historic events. The Queen died two days into her premiership. There she is, making a speech outside 10 Downing Street. She was giving one of the readings at the Queen's funeral. She'll be ever present. And what really struck me was the last remembrance Sunday, and there she was at the centre. She's only 47, maybe 48. She can be there probably for another 30 years. Will people be asking "Who is that," in a few years' time, or will she bounce back again?

James Heale That's a very good question. Who was Liz Truss? She’s a bit of an enigma, I think even to some of her parliamentary colleagues. I think that in terms of her immediate plans, she went on her first holiday when she wasn't a government minister in 10 years, just after she left office in October. She's come back to the UK. She's already actually just gone out and done a tour of American Institutes like the Cato Institute. And I think that basically offers the kind of model for what she'll try to be. As I understand it, she will fight her seat at the next election, which is a very Tory-safe seat, one of the ones you'd expect it to retain, even in the event of a landslide. And so I think she'll be around Parliament probably championing her ideas, and I think there's a certain caucus of the party which is already saying perhaps, "Well, we've got the alternative now. We've got the thin gruel of Rishinomics, if you want to call it that. Liz Truss wasn't completely wrong in terms of her analysis," and so I can maybe see some kind of role in which she champions a certain wing of the party or even perhaps makes her comeback on the front bench as a spokesperson for certain issues. On foreign affairs, perhaps, she was seen by the party certainly to be in the mainstream on those things.

So I think in the short term, it'll be about getting over the shock. I think a lot of people around her are still digesting what happened. It was a very high pressure and turbulent time. And then longer term, finding some kind of post-premiership career. But as you say, she'll always be an ex-Prime Minister even if she was only in the job for seven weeks.

Kate Leppard I've also got to ask you about Boris Johnson. I was driving my car to the garage during the October leadership battle when there was a great debate about whether Boris would run against Rishi. I actually missed my turning. Will he make a comeback, a Churchillian comeback in, say, five years' time?

James Heale I can certainly see it happening. I think that for now, and I know I said this at the beginning of the interview, this party really does think it's going to be with Rishi Sunak for the next two years, and so I'm not sure that I can see any comeback before the next election. But what I would say is that after that, who knows? Of course, they've got two big, potentially insurmountable objects, one of which is the privileges committee, into whether he lied to Parliament about “partygate.” If he can get through that, and say, "well, I never knowingly lied," or words to that effect, then of course that opens him up to stand again. And the second thing is, can he keep his seat in the next election? Uxbridge and South Ruislip. On current trends, it's set to go Labour. If they can maybe find a seat or something like that, then there can be a way for him to come back in some capacity.

What I would say is that he's done three speeches thus far, and made £750,000 from it. So I'm sure he's in no great hurry to go back to the relative penury of modern politics. At the same time, he's paying for as much wallpaper as he wants, but he's doing a fair amount of the after-dinner set at the moment and he's already signed an amendment on the leveling up bill with Liz Truss, against which, Force Rishi revolts. So I think he's happy causing a bit of mischief and then we will see what happens in a few years' time, if he stays in Parliament.

Kate Leppard James, what should we expect in 2023, in terms of UK politics, as you see it?

James Heale I think it's a shift, in the old words of Tony Benn, from personalities to issues. We got very used in 2022 to these great personalities shaping debates. Three Prime Ministers. I think in the next year, it'll be much more about the issues of imperceptible, insurmountable forces, things to do with markets, energy, capacity, the economy, and going back to those kind of debates. Because I think both Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak are quite managerial politicians, quite sober-minded themselves. And I think that they'll both try and go back and forth on technical issues that are in their control, about bigger macroeconomic forces. There can't be much more turbulence than last year, I hope, for all our sanity. Have four prime ministers perhaps, but my odds would be, my one prediction would be we'll have the same prime minister at the end of the year as we do at the start of it, Rishi Sunak. And I think that it's a case of Rishi trying to get that Labour lead down into single figures and with the expectation of perhaps the wider Westminster commentariat and the markets that Labour will win in 2024.

Kate Leppard James, thank you so much. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. I hope our audience will too. And good luck. I'm looking forward to enjoying your next book on whoever your chosen victim might be, because I certainly enjoyed Out of the Blue, and very many congratulations to you and Harry for writing it in extraordinary times and actually being brave enough to hit the publish button, as well.

James Heale Thank you Kate.


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Kate Leppard
Head of Client Service, UK Wealth Management



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