Liz Truss: Instagram, cheese, and free markets

Liz Truss is Chief Secretary to the Treasury and one of the Conservative Party’s greatest champions for free markets [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Liz Truss has been the Member of Parliament for South West Norfolk since 2010. Since entering the Commons, she has quickly established herself as one of the great champions of free market ideals. Part of David Cameron’s A-List, she has held several positions across government. She currently serves as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, effectively the Chancellor’s deputy at the department. Tipped by some as a potential leader for our outspoken views but bound by cabinet collective responsibility, I started the interview by getting to know a bit about the woman herself.

Born in Oxford but raised in Scotland and Yorkshire and sent to a comprehensive school, she described eighties sci-fi blockbuster E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial as her favourite film. “It’s one of the first films I saw,” she said, “It’s just great… It makes me cry.” She also loves eighties music. “I’m a regular listener of Heart ‘80s,” she confessed, “but I do like modern poppy stuff too, particularly Bruno Mars.” Her favourite drink? “Gin.” Said without hesitation. Asked whether she had done drugs, the answer was a resounding: “no.” Recalling her time as a student at Oxford she said, “I had a great time at university but that now feels like a long time ago!”

As a student Truss was not a member of the Conservative Party, far from it. Up until 1996, she was a prominent member of the Liberal Democrats and served as President of the Oxford University Liberal Democrats. “We all have our teenage errors,” she declared. “Some people do drugs, I was in the Liberal Democrats!” Asked what made her decide to defect: “Fundamentally I believe in freedom and that people should have power over their own lives. It is wrong to take more than is necessary from people in tax and the Liberal Democrats had been advocating for higher taxes at the time as well as joining the Euro which I thought would be a disaster as it would tie us to the interest rates of other countries on the continent.”

“I think this is relevant for how the Conservatives attract the next generation,” she continued. “I hadn’t realised that, as a freedom-loving person, the Conservative Party was my natural home. I grew up in a left-wing family and so the Tories seemed different and alien, but when I went to university and spoke to real Tories, I started to think about the importance of the economic side of freedom and I realised that I am a Tory myself.”

After graduating from Oxford, Truss first worked in the energy sector and then telecommunications, qualifying as a management consultant. “I worked for Shell and then I worked for Cable & Wireless. One of my first jobs was liquid natural gas shipping so I got to travel around the world talking about ships which was exciting!” Following those roles Truss began working in policy and became the deputy director of the think tank Reform, working especially on education and justice issues.

This experience would prepare her for her time in government. Truss was assigned a junior post in the Department for Education in 2012 and became Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2014 (Defra). She was then appointed Lord Chancellor in 2016, the first woman to hold the post in its long history. “It was very exciting,” she said, “and I really enjoyed the prison reform aspect of that job.” Despite the historic nature of that appointment, Truss’ time at Defra most captured public attention as she moved up the ranks.

“I loved the food at Defra,” the self-professed foodie remarked chuckling. “I am a big cheese fan so that was great!” Truss made a notably quirky speech at the 2014 Conservative Party conference in which she decried the import of two thirds of our cheese as a national disgrace. The remarks went viral prompting satire from programmes like Have I Got News for You and a flood of memes online. “The Defra conference speech was a complete accident,” she admitted. “I am genuinely very passionate about British cheese but perhaps I hammed up the delivery a bit too much.”

Politicians from all sides face massive public scrutiny and this often takes the form of jokes. How did she feel facing that in earnest for the first time? “When it was on Have I Got News for You I was surprised that they had been watching the speech.” I put to her that exposure, even in satire, can sometimes be quite useful for connecting with voters. “Exactly,” she replied, “I think one of the things some people are fed up with is politicians rolling out the same kind of rhetoric, so I do like to shake things up and, even though it was unintentional, I think the cheese speech did that.”

A known Instagram enthusiast, the Chief Secretary regularly uses the app to, as her bio states, “lift the veil on life in government”. She’s not the only Conservative too. Jacob Rees-Mogg boasts more than 55,000 followers. “Jacob is an inspiration on Instagram!” she said. “We don’t always talk about it or swap tips, but we do all follow each other. You find out that somebody’s been on holiday or they have got a new dog and you might not have known that before. That’s one of the things I like about it; you get to learn more about each other.”

Now that she is in the Treasury she works alongside the Chancellor Philip Hammond. “I’m an economist by trade so the Treasury is where I am at home,” she said. “Every year the government spends £800 billion which is £30,000 per household,” she explained, “and my job is to make sure we get value for money.” Speaking of the Chancellor she added, “He’s got a very dry sense of humour and it keeps us all amused.” When she entered the Commons, Truss founded the Free Enterprise Group, a collective of MPs who support free markets.

As one of the Conservative Party’s greatest champions of free markets, I challenged Truss on the Theresa May’s economic programme, occasionally criticised as anti-market and anti-freedom due to policies such as the energy price cap and sin taxes like the sugar tax. I put to her that the platform which she is tasked to help develop and implement as number two at the Treasury isn’t in line with her fundamental economic philosophy:

“I think our economic policies are fantastic,” she said. “We are pursuing more competition in the energy sector and that’s important. The economy has been successful, and we’ve got a record number of people in work and a growing economy despite all the warnings about Brexit. Of course, different people in the Conservative Party take different views on exactly the flavour of free market economics but the vast gulf between us and the Labour Party is clear between those who fundamentally believe in capitalism and those who want capitalism to be overthrown and for all of us to live in a commune.”

There is a palpable sense, as we continue to live in the long shadow of the Global Financial Crisis, that a lot of people feel capitalism is losing ground. Few people in public discourse unashamedly argue the positive case for capitalism and socialism has re-entered public discourse in the UK. “It is the responsibility of all of us to make the positive case for free markets,” Truss said, “but we can’t just reheat the rhetoric we had in the eighties; we’ve got to talk about it in ways which appeal to the world of today.”

On the changing face of capitalism, she elaborated: “I’m a big fan of the gig economy and the sharing economy and they’ve brought massive benefits to so many people just entering work or going to university, but people don’t necessarily link that explicitly in their heads with the market economy, but it is an intrinsic part of it. The internet itself is one of the greatest free market inventions of all time as it was completely bottom up and gave power to the people. That’s the way we must talk about it. Post-2008, a lot of people on the right understandably lost their nerve but the vast majority of free enterprise activity is overwhelmingly positive.”

In 2012, Truss and four other members of the Free Enterprise Group published the book Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity. The book promoted free market solutions to keeping the UK competitive on the world stage and reasserting British economic power through liberalisation. I asked her whether Brexit meant that Britannia would be ‘unchained’: “Yes!” she laughed. “It’s funny, the first book we wrote was After the Coalition which predicted the end to that and then we wrote Britannia Unchained which, unbeknown to me at the time, effectively predicted Brexit. I’ll have to be careful about future books that I write!”

I put to her that a lot of people might fear that liberalisation of the economy meant threats to the rights of workers and reductions in environmental protection. “To me,” she said “a free market economy is about giving power to the individual to make decisions rather than giving that power to the state. There is a choice post-Brexit about whether people should decide their own destiny, or do we want an economy in which the state decides. John McDonnell wants to take £500 billion from the productive private sector to put in a fund controlled by the government. We should give power to individuals and businesses. That’s how we should talk about it and not play into the narrative of those who just want power for the state.”

Theresa May’s future has been in question since she led the Conservatives to lose their majority last year. During a recent trip to the United States, the Chief Secretary made headlines by calling for the Prime Minister to be bolder on economic policy, prompting speculation about manoeuvres for the leadership. “The Prime Minister is doing a great job,” she stressed. “She’s getting Brexit through and that’s really important.” Asked whether she would stand to be leader of the party, she only further emphasised: “The Prime Minister is not going to resign.” With the current impasse on Brexit looking precarious for Theresa May, Liz Truss is certainly one to keep an eye on.

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