Case Study Liz Truss

On 6 September 2022 Liz Truss travelled to Balmoral in Scotland for an appointment with the queen. She became Prime Minister. However, 7 weeks later she was  standing in front of the door of Number 10 making her final address as prime minister after a disastrous mini-budget, the resignation of prominent ministers and an  loss of confidence among almost all Conservative MPs.

Four days after Boris Johnson’s resignation in July 2022, Liz Truss announced her intention to run for the leadership of the Conservative Party.  Her appeal was a criticism of Johnson's lack of ideological commitment she declared that she would ‘fight the election as a Conservative and govern as a Conservative’, focusing on tackling the cost of living crisis, scaling back the size of the state and reducing the tax burden on individuals and businesses. The era of 'Big government Boris' was over. 

The eight candidates who started the race were whittled down to two after successive votes by Conservative Party MPs and on 20 July 2022, Liz Truss (113 votes) and Rishi Sunak (137 votes) won through to the membership vote. The membership of the Conseravtive Part just over 170,000 registered Conservative Party members, older, whiter and more middle class than the general population. 

For many Conservatives the important difference was their support for Boris Johnson. While Rishi Sunak’s resignation proved fatal for Johnson, Liz Truss had remained loyal — something that played decisively well with the many Johnson loyalists within the membership. Liz Truss had long sought to cultivate a specifically Thatcher-like ‘iron lady’ image.

Events dear boy

Limitations on the power of PMs 

Liz Truss faced  a daunting list of problems. Inflation at a 40-year high, soaring energy bills, a declining pound, record borrowing and rising interest rates.


 A bad start. Keep your friends close and your enemies....... Peter Walker in the Guardian commented ‘how uniformly the top of Truss’s cabinet is a mix of friends, former colleagues and ideological soulmates. But most of all, supporters’. Truss made little attempt to broaden her support ij the Parliamentary Party.Thérèse Coffey was referred to by The Independent as Liz Truss’s ‘long-time ally and fellow karaoke enthusiast’. Seen as Liz Truss’s closest friend in Westminster, Coffey became both health secretary and deputy prime minister.

An inexperience Chancellor:Kwasi Kwarteng, was Truss' choice for  chancellor of the exchequer, hewas elected as an MP in 2010, entering parliament at the same time as Liz Truss. He had 4 years of ministerial experience, most recently as business secretary Kwarteng is widely seen as sharing the same economic outlook as Truss and along with the new PM was a co-author of Britannia Unchained, a 2012 collection of essays advocating a small-state UK.

A complete cock up: A disastrous series of self-inflicted wounds — which turned into a political death spiral.  The mini-Budget in September 2022,  sent the main UK stockmarkets and the pound sharply falling, was to prove a disaster for Liz Truss. Almost immediately, the British pound’s valuation tanked, the United Kingdom’s central bank was forced to hike interest rates and the cost of taking out mortgages soared.   Her failure to explain how such radical decisions would be paid for was seen by many Conservatives as destoying their party’s reputation for fiscal responsibility. Sacking close ally Kwasi Kwarteng as chancellor after just 38 days in the job, replacing him with Jeremy Hunt who reversed the mini-Budget (along with the associated tax cuts upon which Truss was elected leader) stabilised little. A YouGov poll taken 2 days prior to Truss’s resignation confirmed that 77% or respondents ‘disapproved’ of the Conservative government.

In a live television interview that evening, a visibly seething Conservative lawmaker, Charles Walker, described the situation as an “absolute disgrace,” blaming “talentless” colleagues for supporting Truss’s bid to become leader — “not because it’s in the national interest but because it’s in their personal interest to achieve ministerial position.” The public’s view of how the party handled itself is so dim that as many as half of all Conservative lawmakers could lose their seats in a general election, he said. 

What can Truss’s rise and fall tell us about the nature of prime ministerial power?

The process by which Truss became prime minister raised questions about the legitimacy of her mandate from the outset. When a vacancy occurs for party leader within the Conservative Party, MPs participate in a series of votes until only two candidates remain. These candidates are then put to party members. This hasn’t always been the case. Until a secret ballot was introduced in 1965, Conservative Party leaders were simply announced after a private discussion among MPs. Only in 1998 did the Conservatives introduce reforms which put the vote to party members. We might therefore conclude that the current process is more democratic than the one before. In a healthy democracy we expect to see power dispersed, and by giving party members a voice, it ensures that candidates can command support outside the corridors of Westminster. However, the process is also problematic, particularly given the declining numbers of members within the UK’s main political parties. Truss was chosen by a group of 98,000 individuals. This could be seen as unrepresentative, particularly since party members tend to be more ideological than, and socially unrepresentative of, the wider population. In this instance, the party members did not even share the views of Conservative MPs who had supported Rishi Sunak over Truss. This prompted calls for the party to revert to its former process, on the basis that it is more important for the party leader to be able to command the support of the parliamentary party than party members. Others pointed to the fact that some of the policy pledges made by Truss contradicted the 2019 Conservative manifesto. It could therefore be argued that the process by which Liz Truss was appointed as party leader was flawed, and that it provided her with a weak mandate from the outset. 

In some ways, Truss demonstrated just how powerful the UK prime minster can be. Using her powers of patronage she reshuffled the Cabinet, appointing loyal supporters above those who had backed Rishi Sunak. With a healthy Commons majority, she confidently embarked on a new economic agenda, coined ‘Trussonomics’ by the media. Alongside her Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, she announced a mini-budget within 3 weeks of taking office, side-stepping the Office of Budget Responsibility. 

This demonstrates the capacity for a UK prime minister to set the political agenda and to operate, at least in theory, with very little restraint. However, Truss’s swift downfall points to the limitations of adopting such a quasi-presidential style of leadership. In appointing only loyal supporters to her Cabinet, she alienated MPs within her own party. Liberated from collective responsibility, it was easier for big names such as Michael Gove to speak against her. External pressures also played a part: the Bank of England was forced to step in to calm the markets and media headlines such as ‘In Office but not in power’ (Daily Mail) undermined public confidence. As support drained away, she sacked her chancellor and made a policy U-turn on the budget. Days later, her home secretary resigned and a chaotic vote took place in Parliament on fracking, in which 31 Conservative MPs abstained. It was clear that Truss had lost the support of her own party and she resigned on 20 October. As a case study, Liz Truss demonstrates that the prime minster has considerable power at their disposal. However, the combination of a weak mandate, opposition from within her own Cabinet and party, an unstable economic policy and external pressure such as media scrutiny all combined to undermine her, ultimately making her continuation as prime minister untenable.