This article is from the February 2013 issue of Total Politics
Elizabeth Truss is one of 12 members of the 2010 Tory intake who were brought from the backbenches into ministerial posts. She represents the so-called ‘radical right’ of the Conservative Party, and is in the fast lane: The Spectator gave Truss the accolade of 'Minister to Watch'.
Truss is not only prepared, but relishes speaking about the current problems facing the country in a far more direct manner than most ministers do: she seeks to challenge the consensus that economic decline is inevitable and argues for a return to meritocratic and entrepreneurial values.
Last year, along with fellow MPs Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Chris Skidmore, she published the hard-hitting book Britannia Unchained; its introduction states that once they “enter the workplace, the British are amongst the worst idlers in the world. We work amongst the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor.” It comes as no surprise, then, that since the late 1990s, Truss has been part of this radical right seeking meritocracy, and representing ideologically a new generation of Tories.
The MP for South West Norfolk has firm beliefs regarding the economy, but also wants radically to shake up education. Among the arguments made are for more rigour and higher standards, more academic subjects and longer school days. She states that, during her first term in Parliament, she wants to reform A-Levels and GCSEs, and her ambition is to see the UK at the top of educational league tables.
She demonstrated her competency for this role before entering politics. She studied PPE at Merton College, Oxford, acted as commercial manager at Shell, economics director at Cable & Wireless – and all this before joining the think tank Reform. And while all of this bolsters her credentials, she has also written for liberal think tank CentreForum, founded the Free Enterprise Group and authored papers and multiple publications, such as Academic Rigour and Social Mobility and Affordable Quality.
It is therefore clear that it's not merely to diversify his front bench that Cameron has promoted Truss – and, as a woman, she may prove to be essential to the PM. She is also one of only four working mothers in government, and feels that this gives her a unique perspective on what education policy should be.
Prior to her election, she did a lot of work on education while at Reform, calling for “an overhaul of our qualifications system”. In particular, she favours improvements in maths and science.
Truss’ beliefs surrounding the economy and education, as well as social mobility, are not restricted to the national scale. She claims that Norfolk needs improvements to infrastructure, in order to support businesses and residents.
She has campaigned to find new ways of ensuring better roads, faster broadband and reliable energy supplies. Her views nationally infiltrate her local mantra: community businesses need highly skilled workers, while claiming too much public money has been wasted.
The fact that she had a job outside of the political circles in which she now works has provided her with an eye for efficiency. Truss wants to use her accountancy background and business experience to get value for money from every penny spent on public services. Perhaps this is why her decision to become an MP “gradually dawned” on her.
And although she flirted with the left at university, she's now a Conservative because she believes “in liberty and the free market”; her favourite political hero, Ronald Reagan, was an optimist regarding what could be achieved. It's only fitting, therefore, that Margaret Thatcher would be her favourite PM as an “icon who made us feel proud of our country”.
Yet Truss' eyes are fixed on her current task, with David Laws being the non-Conservative politician she most admires for his early adoption of education and economic reforms. Truss is a mover and shaker, fundamentally calling for change:
"Politics in this country is broken and must change. That means real decisions at a local level, more power to people and complete transparency about the way our public services and our democracy work and what your representatives are doing for you.”
The view inside Westminster:
Before her ministerial promotion, Truss was well-known among her colleagues for her prolific output of books and reports. “She is like a cat,” says one MP. “She knows how to get people to pay attention to her and note what she does.” Another colleague adds: “The Margaret Thatcher comparison isn’t so off the mark, especially now she’s in the education department. She just needs to remember to stay in touch with other MPs.”