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LONDON — It’s Westminster’s oldest cliché — but a week really is a long time in politics.
Seven days ago, Liz Truss was watching her fledgling bid for the Conservative leadership falter after the first round of voting left her in a distant third place.
Fast-forward one week and the U.K. foreign secretary has secured the backing of sufficient Conservative MPs to make it through to the final head-to-head stage of the contest. She now finds herself the hot favorite to win the race for No. 10 Downing Street.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for a candidate whose campaign was littered with missteps, and who at times faced being overtaken by younger or fresher-faced rivals.
“It’s been like trying to drive a finely-tuned Formula One car,” a relieved campaign aide said Wednesday night. “Once we got things under control, we always thought we’d be able to overtake later on.”
Truss had been slow to launch, stuck abroad in Indonesia on ministerial duty when the Johnson regime imploded earlier this month. An early readers’ poll by the influential Conservative Home website placed her fifth out of the 11 declared candidates.
Her launch event was a drab affair, and she was mocked on social media for appearing to lose her way as she exited the stage. She was then widely judged to have performed disastrously in the first of two televised leadership debates, and has continued to poll poorly among the general public over which candidate would make the best prime minister.
Throughout four rounds of voting among Tory MPs, she trailed in third place, never once breaking into the all-important top two — until the very last moment.
But on Wednesday afternoon, in the fifth and final round of MP voting, Truss finally leapfrogged Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt and — by just a handful of votes — joined ex-Chancellor Rishi Sunak in this summer’s head-to-head showdown vote of the wider party membership.
At a stroke, her world has changed. A YouGov poll of Tory members this week suggested that in a run-off between Truss and Sunak, it would be the foreign secretary who comes out on top. Suddenly, Downing Street beckons.
The late surge
For what it’s worth, Team Truss insists they always expected their candidate to overtake Mordaunt in the final reckoning, as fellow right-wingers dropped out of the contest.
Her advisers had found solace in the 2005 Tory leadership contest, when David Cameron had initially trailed his rival David Davis before hoovering up supporters of the centrist Ken Clarke when he was knocked out of the race. Similarly, Truss appears to have picked up crucial votes at the 11th hour from her right-wing rival Kemi Badenoch, who was eliminated Tuesday night.
“We always thought we would be able to unite that wing of the party,” a Truss aide said.
Key to winning the support of Tory MPs has been Truss’s willingness to take Sunak’s unpopular tax plans head-on.
Truss has pledged to cancel his planned 6p rise in corporation tax, and abolish a £12 billion increase in national insurance contributions. She has also promised to lift the green energy levy on energy bills for two years.
By contrast, Sunak has warned Tory leadership rivals against pledging unsustainable tax cuts amid a severe economic crisis.
Despite Truss polling poorly with the general public during Sunday’s second televised leadership debate — a bloody affair in which she repeatedly clashed with Sunak over economic policy — her team believes the chance to face down the former chancellor’s tax plans had been crucial in framing the economic battleground.
“We think that debate crystallized in people’s minds that she was someone who could really take it to Rishi,” an aide said. “That’s where we feel it really turned for us.”
‘Fizz with Liz’
Truss’ groundswell of support among Tory MPs has been long in the making, however.
A series of social events hosted by the foreign secretary — jokingly dubbed “Fizz with Liz” in Westminster — were always suspected to have been organized with an eye on a tilt at the top job.
“It’s all about who has the most friends,” one supportive MP explained. “And who is likely to win.”
More colleagues rushed to Truss this week, he added, as it became clear she had a real shot at the top job. Truss had “comically” walked through the voting lobby “looking very regal, with a little entourage,” and “people just flocked around. “
“I saw a minister of state, trying to be seen,” he laughed.
The Truss campaign has been run from the famous Westminster townhouse of Tory peer and Norfolk landowner Greville Howard. The historic property on Lord North Street was previously used by outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson for his successful 2019 campaign, and by former Cabinet minister Michael Portillo in his abortive attempt to oust John Major as prime minister back in 1995.
Key players inside the campaign have included former whips Graham Stuart and Wendy Morton; long-serving Truss aide Sophie Jarvis — a former lobbyist at the right-wing Adam Smith Institute — and Vote Leave campaign veteran Hugh Bennett, previously an aide to the influential former Brexit negotiator David Frost.
But the help of more moderate MPs, including the former MEP Vicky Ford and former health minister Ed Argar, had also been crucial in building wider support for Truss, a team member said.
Rivals, however, suspect Truss’ success in pegging back her rivals was down to far more than a slick whipping operation and low-tax message.
Mordaunt’s team complained bitterly about “nasty personal attacks” in the influential Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph newspapers, which they said had “cut through” with Tory MPs.
A so-called “Get Rishi” dirty tricks campaign against the former chancellor has also been laid at the door of Team Truss — a charge they firmly deny.
Truss’ loyalty to Johnson also appeared to pay off. Both his Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries and Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg rowed in behind her campaign and were unafraid to get personal with her rivals.
That same perceived loyalty to Johnson may help her with party members this summer.
Queen of comebacks
That Truss is even in contention for the top job in British politics would have seemed inconceivable at multiple points in her career.
A bright future was predicted when she joined parliament in 2010, and she was among the first of her intake to make it to the Cabinet table when Cameron appointed her environment secretary in 2014.
But she found herself stranded in a series of middle-ranking jobs for the subsequent five years, and her hopes of finally being rewarded with a senior Cabinet post by Johnson in 2019 after throwing her weight behind his campaign came to nothing.
Having hoped to become his chancellor, she was instead dispatched to what was thought to be relative obscurity at the Department for International Trade.
But Truss had other ideas. She wowed the Tory grassoots by promoting “Global Britain” on the world stage, signing a series of rollover trade deals which she said showed how Brexit could be a success for the U.K. She also carefully cultivated a colorful Instagram persona, including photos of her in Sydney riding a Brompton bicycle with a Union Jack umbrella (for which she charged the taxpayer £2,500).
Soon she was the darling of the Tory grassroots — and a big promotion to the foreign office finally arrived last year, leaving her in pole position to one day succeed Johnson as PM.
Her record during that all-important stint at the trade department remains subject to much debate, but many of her supporters cite her success as pivotal in her path to the top job.
“She gets stuff done — that’s what trade enabled her to prove. All sorts of people said you couldn’t get these continuity agreements done before Brexit, but she proved them wrong,” one former colleague said.
But a former trade department official said her success was more down to clever PR.
After one deal was signed, “we had maybe one minute of ‘well done, great result’ before about an hour of haranguing about our apparent inability to sell results to the public,” the official said. “It was another example of the focus on messaging over substance.”
An MP who backed Mordaunt agreed. “She is a great harvester of credit for things,” the former minister said sniffily.
But he also grudgingly admitted Truss’ determination in the face of adversity indicated a “degree of resilience.”
“Some people just give up,” he said. “The nature of success in this game is to keep going.”
Truss has shown a similar power of resilience over her Brexit position, shaking off her support for Remain in 2016 to reinvent herself as a born-again Brexiteer. Her hardline approach to the Brexit deal’s controversial protocol governing trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain has delighted Brexiteer MPs and Tory members alike.
For every avowed supporter, however, there are multiple critics in the parliamentary party who don’t believe she has what it takes to pull off a win for the Tories in the next general election.
Many Labour MPs are openly gleeful at the prospect of facing her as PM, believing her to be wooden, gaffe-prone and likely to bomb with the public.
One Tory MP described her as “electoral kryptonite,” while another said she was “divisive” and “Marmite.”
“Some people adore her, but for many, she’s a real turnoff,” the former minister said.
But all that matters, for now, are the opinions of around 200,000 Tory grassroots members, who alone will decide whether Truss or Sunak is the next prime minister.
“I honestly think it’s already over,” one supportive MP said Wednesday. “She’s no good at the hustings — we saw that last week — but it doesn’t matter a jot. The members don’t care. They’ve already made up their minds — and they don’t want Rishi.”
If the polls are right, then Britain should get ready for Prime Minister Liz.
Eleni Courea contributed reporting.
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