How similar is Liz Truss to Margaret Thatcher?

The foreign secretary has been accused of cosplaying Margaret Thatcher - but how similar to the Iron Lady is she really?

Colin Drury
Saturday 03 September 2022 17:41 BST
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When Liz Truss was asked at the very first Conservative leadership hustings in Leeds which of the party’s past prime ministers she most admired, she had a very definite answer: Margaret Thatcher.

For many, this reply probably fell into the box marked “you don’t say!”

Throughout her recent political career, the former Lib Dem – who looks all but certain to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister next week – has appeared to go out of her way to court comparisons with the Iron Lady.

Her constant references to bulldozing establishment orthodoxy, to fighting the unions and to standing up to Russia all feel laser-made to bring her political hero to mind. So often have her outfits aped those of Mrs Thatcher that it has become a common place-ism to describe her as “cosplaying” the former PM.

Even her denials of similarities end up emphasising the, er, similarities.

"I am my own person,” she said in July. “I’m from a very different background. I grew up in Yorkshire. I went to a comprehensive school. I am somebody who has worked all my life to get things done.”

Mrs Thatcher grew up in neighbouring Lincolnshire, went to a comprehensive school and, self-evidently, worked all her life to get things done.

So, with the foreign secretary now all-but-certain to be leading the country from next week, are we about to get Margaret Thatcher Mark Two? How similar are they really?

Margaret Thatcher and Liz Truss

The similarities

Although Ms Truss has a well-earned reputation as an ideological shape-shifter, her worldview – or at least her worldview at the moment – does appear to align with that of Britain’s most famous grocer’s daughter.

Like Mrs Thatcher, she is a keen advocate of individualism, instinctively suspicious of the welfare state and holds no truck with union influence. It is now almost cliché to point out that, in 2012, she co-authored a book which described British workers as “idlers”.

She wants greater deregulation of the financial sector, less bureaucracy in government and a simplified tax system. “We did great things in the 1980s,” she told the Financial Times of similar changes that Mrs Thatcher made.

Pertinently (because this is the Conservative Party), her views on Europe also appear to have undergone a similar journey to that of the former PM - who became increasingly Eurosceptic as her premiership progressed through the Eighties. In an echo of that shift, Ms Truss has also moved from being a one-time Remainer to a leading Brexiteer, now demanding that all EU legislation, including that to do with human rights, is removed from the statute books.

There is a like-mindedness, too, on immigration (Thatcher called for it to be stopped in 1979), education (Truss has said she wants new grammar schools) and the union (it should be strong).

“I think anyone who pays any attention to politics can see that she [Truss] aspires to be seen as a Thatcherite figure,” says Matthew Johnson, professor in politics at Northumbria University. “It is very clear that she believes that has been her best strategy [for winning the Tory leadership race].”

The differences

It may be brutal – and could yet still be premature – but, for many political observers, there appears to be one key difference between Mrs Thatcher and Ms Truss: ability.

“Margaret Thatcher had a clear and coherent political vision, and she had the intellectual and political ability to then translate that into clear policies which shaped the country for the next 30, 40 years,” says Professor Johnson.

“Liz Truss may come from a similar ideological position but, I would suggest, she has neither the intellectual capacity to come up with such a vision or the political talent to turn it into any kind of reality. I would also argue she does not have anywhere near the same wider political support.”

Even the very act of aping her Conservative forebearer could be described as un-Thatcherite: the former PM was beholden to no one from her party’s past.

“Whether you agreed with what Thatcher did or not, she had a very specific set of issues to deal with,” says Professor Johnson again. “Truss has very different problems in a very different context – because we are 40 years on – yet she is talking about the same sort of solutions, about rolling back the state, or deregulation. That isn’t radical.”

Critics say that economically, too, she is a far cry from the woman Ronald Reagan once described as the “best man in England”.

While Truss supporters say her promises of lower taxation would be approved by the Iron Lady herself, history perhaps disagrees.

As Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out just last week, her plans to increase the national debt in order to lower taxes “could not be further from Thatcher who...took the very unpopular decision to raise taxes in 1981 to manage deficit and inflation”.

Rather, the economics expert said, such a policy had “clear echoes of Ted Heath in 1973”.

Conservative MP Robert Jenrick expressed a similar concern. “It is antithesis of Thatcherism,” he said, “to be going around making unfunded tax pledges merely to win a leadership contest.”

Even in foreign policy, where on the face of it both women appear hawkish, there is some daylight between the two.

Mrs Thatcher famously helped bring an end to the Cold War, declaring one-time Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev as “a man one could do business with”. Ms Truss, by contrast, sometimes appears to be going out of her way to escalate the current Russia-Ukraine conflict. Asked in February if UK citizens should volunteer to fight in the war, she said they would “absolutely” have her support – something military chiefs told her to row back on amid concerns it could spiral to more direct confrontation between the UK and Russia.

The conclusion

Perhaps time more than anything else will tell us just how alike Ms Truss is to Mrs Thatcher.

For now, rhetoric and Russian fur hats notwithstanding, the evidence remains limited - could she really emulate her hero’s 11 years in power and still be wearing pussy-bows around Downing Street in 2033?

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