Out of the Blue: the Inside Story of the Unexpected Rise and Rapid Fall of Liz Truss, by Harry Cole and James Heale; HarperCollins, November 24, 2022, £20
THIS book was written in a hurry. The authors, Harry Cole, political editor of the Sun, and James Heale, diary editor of the Spectator, had a tight deadline thrust upon them by their publisher, HarperCollins, and the sudden evaporation of Liz Truss’s administration brought that deadline even further forward. In many respects the pressure shows, but overall this is not a bad effort.
One immediate quibble is that Cole and Heale claim in the Introduction ‘this book is not an authorised biography’. Yet in the very next sentence they admit they were ‘pleased that Liz Truss agreed to be interviewed by us’. Truss submitted to two interviews, in fact, having been charmed by a case of wine she was sent. If the subject of a biography actively contributes to it, can that biography still be called ‘unauthorised’? It’s debatable and certainly unconventional. In any case, Cole and Heale were very trusting: how did they know Truss would tell them the truth about every aspect of her life when they interviewed her? Were any compromises made to keep her sweet?
Truss’s background and early life up to leaving school at 17 are dealt with briskly. This seems a wasted opportunity. The formative years of anybody worth writing a book about, let alone the (ex-) British prime minister, surely warrant more digging. As is well known, for example, Truss hated Roundhay School, her comprehensive in Leeds, yet there is no attempt to find out exactly why. And we learn nothing about her relationship with her father, a maths professor and apparently an unusually bright man. If, as is hinted, it is/was a strained relationship, the authors don’t reveal the reason or the consequences. Perhaps Truss told them she wouldn’t discuss it.
Her Oxford University career is handled a little better, though again a lack of original research suggests the time-pressed authors did not believe it advantageous to spend hours tracing many people who knew her in the early 1990s.
Next, a potentially fertile 13-year period (1996 to 2009) is covered in a mere 20 pages. It takes in her first job at Shell; her attempt to break into local politics in south London; her marriage to Hugh O’Leary; a new job at Cable & Wireless; becoming a Conservative Party candidate in time to contest the 2001 general election; contesting the 2005 election; the Daily Mail revealing in 2006 that she had had an extra-marital affair with Tory MP Mark Field; having two children; joining a PR firm and then a think-tank, and being selected as the Tory candidate for South West Norfolk in 2009. The valuable opportunity to tell readers more about Truss through all these experiences (she clearly had huge drive and was evidently a risk-taker in her personal life) seems to have been squandered.
One major consequence of her 18-month affair with Mark Field (we are not told why it ended) is covered in depth in Chapter 4. In the autumn of 2009, the fact of the affair nearly killed her political career altogether when some outraged Tories in the Norfolk constituency she had been picked to fight at the 2010 election (nicknamed the ‘Turnip Taliban’) realised she had previously cheated on her husband and rang the Press to express their displeasure. Again, though, we hear nothing much of how Truss and her family coped with this hugely awkward situation, instead mainly being given a running commentary on events courtesy of newspaper cuttings.
Truss defeated the Turnip Taliban and became an MP in 2010, aged 35. She made an immediate impression, fizzing with policy ideas (she co-wrote two books with Kwasi Kwarteng and others in her first two years in Parliament) and evidently keen on every bit of publicity she could muster. Kwarteng is one named interviewee in the book; Michael Gove, for whom Truss worked as a junior minister in the education ministry between 2012 and 2014, is another.
For a while, Truss whistled through Westminster, at 38 becoming the youngest ever female Cabinet Minister when she was appointed Environment Secretary in 2014; moving up to Lord Chancellor in 2016. Theresa May demoted her (after May’s disastrous 2017 election) to Chief Secretary to the Treasury. She stayed there (and did not get on with Chancellor Philip Hammond) for two years.
Between 2014 and 2019, Truss often seems to have been out of her depth, despite her best efforts, and comes across as a ‘Marmite’ figure, yet she clung on to her place at the Cabinet table. Perhaps it was luck that kept her there.
During this phase she seems to have become a serious devotee of Instagram, which surely says a lot about her. It was intriguing to read that as Chief Secretary to the Treasury she ‘took an intense shine to’ a 20-something female civil servant with whom she used to go on Saturday morning shopping trips in a bid to liven up her wardrobe. The friendship came to an ‘abrupt halt’, apparently, and the young lady ‘refused to ever speak to Truss again’. This civil servant, almost 20 years younger than Truss, isn’t named and we don’t know exactly why they fell out, which is a shame.
When Boris Johnson became PM in July 2019, he reinstated Truss’s full Cabinet rank by making her his International Trade Secretary, a post she clearly enjoyed as it gave her the chance to travel until the pandemic struck. Lockdown was when she and Kwarteng, who live in the same street in Greenwich, hatched their plan to run the country together should the chance arise. Truss, an instinctive tax-cutter, was the strongest voice in the room when disagreeing with then-chancellor Rishi Sunak’s plans to raise national insurance in 2021. That battle was lost.
Truss’s elevation to Foreign Secretary in 2021 took many by surprise, and may have been motivated by Johnson’s desire to create tension for Sunak. Truss didn’t care. It meant she held real power for the first time, and she relished it. We are told that in the first five months in this job, more than 700 pictures of Truss were uploaded on the government’s official Flickr account – ‘one for every five hours in the job’. Such vanity bordering on self-obsession comes as a surprise. Orders were sent to British embassies around the world detailing what Truss would expect when visiting, including ‘double espressos served in a flat white-sized takeaway cup; no big brand coffee; no pre-made sandwiches; bagels or sushi for lunch (absolutely no mayonnaise on anything ever)’. Who would have thought Truss, always at pains to present herself as a ‘woman of the people’, ever modest in her appearance, could be so demanding?
By the time Johnson’s political future was called into question earlier this year, Truss was ready to launch. She was not totally lacking in self-awareness, telling one visitor at the Foreign Office: ‘I think I would be a very good prime minister; there are just two problems. I am weird and I don’t have any friends. How can you help me fix that?’
To her credit she remained publicly loyal to Johnson to the last. When she scraped into the final two in the Tory leadership election to succeed Johnson, almost every right-leaning newspaper championed her over Rishi Sunak for the top job.
Her subsequent and rapid downfall over just 44 days in September and October 2022 is covered in detail and, as first drafts of history go, much of this aspect of the book should stand the test of time.
There is another book to be written about Liz Truss, though, one in which her personality can perhaps be unravelled more satisfactorily. As with the tax cuts which she long advocated (unfairly and recklessly made so toxic by her detractors that no politician may dare suggest them again for at least a generation), it may be a while before anybody can go near this subject again to tackle it with the kind of perspective that will be required.
The result could be highly explosive, especially if, as some believe, she was in effect forced out of office in something approaching a coup. It is easy to forget that ‘Trussonomics’ – the policy which ultimately did for Truss – was never actually instituted in Britain, yet may come to be seen as the last chance the country had to get back on to its feet.
Who is Liz Truss? This book goes some way to telling us she is a hard-working, publicity-hungry contrarian with tons of energy and astonishingly high levels of self-belief. Isn’t that a necessary precursor to advancement in the modern Conservative party or so different from her many less able colleagues? However while she didn’t exactly stumble into Downing Street out of the blue, as the title suggests (she worked at getting there for a long time), she may still fairly be thought of as something of a misfit.
I have read ringing endorsements for Out of the Blue from Tim Shipman (Sunday Times), Matthew Parris (Times) and Daniel Finkelstein (Times). Is it coincidence that they and one of the book’s authors, Harry Cole, all work for the same company, News UK (proprietor Rupert Murdoch) – which is also the owner of Out of the Blue’s publisher HarperCollins?
I can’t give this book the high marks those on the News UK payroll felt able to award it, but it certainly warrants a decent pass.
Editor’s note: Today’s Sunday Times also gives “Out of the Blue” a great review. Written by Charlotte Ivers. What a coincidence!