The biography of Liz Truss by Sun politics editor Harry Cole and James Heale was mocked when Truss’s premiership ended before the manuscript had even been submitted. A dramatic rewrite took place and the book was released as “the unexpected rise and rapid fall” of Liz Truss.
I read the Kindle sample for Out of the Blue and was persuaded to buy it. The book is well-written and gossipy but it also does a good job of explaining how the bizarre recent events came to be. Mark Twain reviewed a history of a personality in the American Civil War by saying it was so good that you weren’t sure which side was going to win. There’s something of that feeling in this book. Cole and Heale do a good job of showing how headstrong and competent Truss was throughout her ministerial postings. When the whole thing falls apart so badly, it’s almost a surprise.
I’d not paid much attention to Truss on her way up, beyond her being a figure of mockery from the left. When she became Prime Minister, I was curious about how she’d gone from being an enthusiastic Liberal Democrat to being Tory. The book is good at filling in this detail, as well as providing some interesting discussion of her childhood. I can’t help but have empathy for someone who grew up programming 8-bit computers, or was a teenager when I was, with the same “grungy” look as my friends, with ”flowery trousers and desert boots”.
The book is not perfect, but is a decent first draft of history. One of the issues is that some of Truss’s contradictions are not resolved. As a student, she seems to have been mocked for being both PC and anti-PC. Throughout the book she is shown as hardworking and astute and then as a dogmatic thinker and a drunk.
For me, one of the most interesting things about this book was the account of Truss’s ministerial career. While her time at DEFRA is mostly remembered for her speech about apples, pork markets and cheese, there is some excellent detail of the work she did (I would genuinely loved to have read more about Truss’s management of the Rural Payments Agency).
The writers pay particular attention to Truss’s skills with social media. The Independent’s sketch writer mocked Truss as “the part-time minister for Instagram and full-time human GIF”, and her photos swamped the government Flickr account. Social media improved her profile and it also gave her an opportunity to comment on issues beyond her ministerial brief. She also managed to be an optimistic politician in a period where this was rare, something that played incredibly well with the Tory Party Membership that put her in power. While her Thatcher cosplay during the leadership debates was mocked, one of the campaigners responded to the criticism saying “You forget that the people that are actually going to decide the next Prime Minister, really, really, really like Margaret Thatcher.”
Gossip runs alongside the analysis – how Truss was evicted from a flat for being too messy, the impact of her affairs, the drunken sprees on ministerial visits, where she is forced to work through her hangovers.
Truss’s fall was rapid. One aspect of what went wrong was that security concerns led to Truss being forced to upgrade her phone, cutting her off from her contacts. As Cole and Heale write, “she is … a politician in a hurry who has only really succeeded when listening to advice. She turned her floundering leadership hopes around by putting herself in the hands of comms professionals for the debates, yet shut out media advisers from the decision-making processes that led to the mini-Budget blunder.”
Truss once told an advisor, “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.” Truss proved too weird for the markets, and like all great tragedies, her downfall was both inevitable and a surprise.
Out of the Blue has a happy ending, talking about how Truss benefitted from a strange post-Brexit configuration of the Tory party that is now tearing it apart. Leave, as an alliance between free marketers and anti-immigration right-wingers, is now splitting, and that could bring the party down with it. I’m still pessimistic about Starmer’s chances of winning an election against the Tories, but it looks like there is a very good chance of the Tories losing.