Britain's new PM, Truss won support with her tough image

·5 min read
Liz Truss announced as next UK PM following Conservative membership ballot, in London

By Elizabeth Piper and Andrew MacAskill

LONDON (Reuters) - If it's not the pictures of her standing atop a tank in a nod to Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher, it's the moment when she vented her anger over cheese imports into Britain that made Liz Truss something of a household name.

For many, she was a figure of fun. But for those in the governing Conservative Party who had to choose Boris Johnson's successor, it was her conversion to avid Brexit supporter and her offer of tax cuts that propelled her to become Britain's next prime minister.

It also helped that she was not former finance minister Rishi Sunak, who some in the party blame for triggering the rebellion against Johnson.

Instead, Truss stood firm in her loyalty to her former boss, who she described as "my friend" during her acceptance speech on Tuesday when her victory over Sunak was announced.

"Boris you got Brexit done, you crushed (former opposition Labour leader) Jeremy Corbyn, you rolled out the (COVID-19) vaccine and you stood up to Vladimir Putin," she told Conservative lawmakers and activists to applause.

"We will deliver, we will deliver and we will deliver."

But she will have to put her own stamp on the party quickly, not only to try to tackle a cost of living crisis and spiralling energy bills, but also to reunite a party at war with itself.

Some lawmakers said the 57% of the vote she claimed in the membership ballot was closer than expected, raising concerns over whether she can get lawmakers on board after more had voted for Sunak in the first round of the contest.

On Tuesday, when Queen Elizabeth receives her in Scotland and asks her to form a government, she will become the Conservatives' fourth prime minister since 2015.

Supportive lawmakers say Truss can govern from day one, with plans to offer struggling households support with energy bills and to revive the economy by cutting 30 billion pounds ($34.5 billion) in taxes despite warnings that might fuel inflation.

Her robust stance on Russia, China and with Brussels over Brexit also won support among the right-leaning governing party, particularly when she questioned whether French President Emmanuel Macron was a friend or foe of Britain.

JOURNEY

Truss's ascent to the top of the Conservative Party has been anything but straightforward.

Born to parents she describes as left-wing, her mother, a nurse and a teacher, and her father, a maths lecturer, took her on demonstrations against then Conservative prime minister Thatcher, now her political idol.

She criticised the monarchy when a member of the centrist Liberal Democrats at the University of Oxford, and described her conversion to conservatism as a "rebellion" spurred by a belief that people "should succeed on merit".

A management consultant, she entered parliament in 2010.

Her early ministerial career was all but defined by a bizarre 2014 speech at the Conservative Party conference.

Stating that Britain imported two thirds of its cheese, she then declared angrily: "That. Is. A. Disgrace." A dramatic pause was met with a ripple of applause and the clip has become a much-used GIF and meme in Westminster and beyond.

Since entering the foreign office in September last year, Truss has been prolific in posting pictures of her endeavours - from standing in Moscow's Red Square in a fur hat to standing atop the tank in Estonia.

She has modelled herself as a strident critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but some fear her robust stance on Russia's war could ratchet up tensions to perilous levels.

At an encounter with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov just before Moscow invaded Ukraine, Truss was left embarrassed when he got her to deny Russian sovereignty over Rostov and Voronezh, two regions in the south of Russia, the Kommersant newspaper reported.

A British source said Truss had misheard during the meeting, calling it "classic Russian propaganda".

Truss has also warned China to learn lessons from the West's response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and said Beijing would face consequences if it did not "play by the rules".

Even her supporters fear she could be too quick with opinions to be an effective diplomat, especially her comment on Macron.

But much of her performance so far was crafted for a particular electorate, the Conservative Party, and some supporters say while she will be tough, she will also be measured when she takes the reins of power on Tuesday.

WOODEN?

Her appeal, even her most reluctant supporters say, is that she is dynamic, a workaholic who is across the detail of policy. Others believe she can steady the ship after Johnson's turbulent and scandal-riddem three years in power.

Beyond tax cuts funded by more borrowing, Truss has said she will set out immediate action in her first week to tackle rising energy bills and to increase energy supplies.

But it is perhaps her stance on Brexit that had the biggest impact.

Despite voting to remain in the European Union at a 2016 referendum, Truss has taken a hard line over Northern Ireland trade, to the delight of eurosceptics and the dismay of Brussels which says it breaks international law.

One of her biggest weaknesses is what one Conservative lawmaker describes as her not being the "most effective communicator", characterised as being a "bit wooden" by Ed Costelloe, chair of the group Conservative Grassroots.

At a debate, she admitted she might not be "the slickest presenter" but "when I say I'll do something, I do it".

($1 = 0.8698 pounds)

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Kate Holton and Alison Williams)