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LONDON — The new face of Britain abroad is a free-market Conservative, former Remain supporter turned Brexiteer in chief.
Liz Truss snatched the foreign secretary job from Dominic Raab Wednesday as Prime Minister Boris Johnson launched a wide-ranging shake-up of his ministerial top team.
The former international trade secretary is famed for her libertarian views on economics and trade, her goofy public persona, and her fight against so-called “woke” culture in Britain. Her promotion will land well with Conservative party members and Johnson will hope she can harness her reputation for optimism to project a positive vision of “Global Britain” on the world stage.
She has been friendly with other nations to get trade deals over the line (some might say too friendly). But EU diplomats are casting a cautious eye over the appointment, after dealing with the combative Raab for so long. One said they were not convinced Truss would “embrace a different narrative” than her predecessor.
Truss is popular at home, though. She is seen in Downing Street as a top performer who gets the job done without attracting negative headlines. One No. 10 official said she got the promotion after she did “a brilliant job as trade secretary, secured great deals and had been a fantastic representative for the U.K. around the world.”
In reality, her scorecard at the trade department is questionable. Truss did secure rollover EU deals with 63 nations and updated the EU deal with Japan. She also shook on a prospective agreement with Australia, and was thought to be about to do the same with New Zealand, although both will need a lot of work to get over the line. Labour would argue that she failed to finalize a single new deal that the U.K. did not have with the EU.
Critical Conservative MPs say she had no vision for the department and was interested just in her own profile — a charge her officials rejected. Some MPs took to labeling her Department for International Trade (DIT) the “Department for Instagramming Truss,” based on her prolific output on the social media site.
Others criticize her social skills. One MP said Truss has a habit of standing “much too close” to people when talking to them. Some insiders POLITICO spoke to have described her as “weird” in social situations.
Her Labour opponent on trade, Emily Thornberry, was unimpressed by the promotion. “I’m afraid Liz Truss’s appointment will be a return to the Boris Johnson days of someone who thinks they can just bluff their way through the job of foreign secretary without doing any actual hard work, or delivering any actual results,” Thornberry told POLITICO. Her tasks as foreign secretary will include promoting “Global Britain” abroad — and rekindling relations with Washington after the Afghanistan fallout.
Truss has not always been in the good books of her seniors on the Conservative benches. She caused controversy after failing to back judges against Brexiteer attacks while serving as justice secretary — an incident that still makes colleagues wince. Her other past roles, in the Treasury and the food department, went without great upset — although she raised eyebrows for a speech about cheese at a 2014 conference.
Path to Downing Street
Truss brims with ambition and is often tipped to stand as a candidate in Conservative leadership contests — although so far has kept her powder dry. Her time at the trade department was a big boost to her leadership prospects and saw her become the most favored Cabinet minister among grassroots Conservative members.
Her libertarian economic credentials are thought to be attractive to rank and file Tories, while her attitude to social issues has not harmed her either. As secretary of state for women and equalities, a role she held while at the trade department and has retained as she moves into the Foreign Office, she has been at the forefront of the so-called “culture war” against “woke” attitudes about race, gender and sexuality.
Yet when it comes to name recognition and popularity among the general public, YouGov polling suggests Truss has a battle ahead if she hopes to one day make it to Downing Street. She came second to last out of fame and popularity in a list of 20 Conservative politicians. The Foreign Office job should boost her public visibility.
Following the EU referendum, Truss shifted from being pro-Remain to an avid Brexiteer — a role she seemed to relish in the trade brief.
She is no stranger to changing her political colors. Her mother, a nurse and teacher, used to take Truss on anti-nuclear marches, and her father was a math lecturer. Both were left-wing. She grew up shouting, “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out!” on marches.
But as she got older, she turned more and more toward the right, founding the Free Enterprise Group of Conservative MPs, a free-market collection of parliamentarians arguing for a more entrepreneurial economy and fewer employment laws.
She co-authored a book, “Britannia Unchained,” with political allies in 2012. Several of them — Raab, Priti Patel and Kwasi Kwarteng — now sit with her around the Cabinet table. It was, and remains, a controversial work, Euroskeptic and neoliberal in tone.
“I’m probably one of the more ideological among my colleagues, in that that’s what motivates me,” Truss told POLITICO for a profile in March. She’ll now get a chance to demonstrate how that ideology translates on the world stage.