Is Boris Johnson’s reign almost over or will his spirit live on in the premiership of Liz Truss?

The current Tory leadership favourite makes great play of her loyalty towards Johnson whilst curiously slamming his premiership – along with the last 30 years of economic policy – as a liberal, mealymouthed disaster. That’s a level of brazen contradiction the master might applaud, along with her improbable insistence that investment in the NHS will happen despite tax cuts.

Other similarities abound. Relatively unpopular amongst MP colleagues but a darling of the membership – check. Obsessed with getting Brexit done – check. Of course, Truss will insist that happened on Johnson’s watch, but the struggle to protect our new ‘freedoms’ will continue - indefinitely.

Hence the bonfire of EU law promised by the end of next year. This arbitrary target is unlikely to be hit and the effort will cause regulatory mayhem behind the scenes. But if it makes Liz undisputed keeper of the Holy Brexit Flame by faintly echoing that bold side-of-a-bus promise by Boris, so much the better.

Breaking international law – check.

It was Truss herself who introduced legislation to scrap the Northern Ireland protocol, thus provoking the impending EU trade war. Of course, “the Lady won’t be for turning” on that, since a legal battle with foreign “enemies of the people” will be an excellent distraction from everything else that’s set to go wrong.

She learned that from the maestro. Dumping liberal values when inconvenient – check. A preference for loyalists, sycophants and Z-listers – check. A preoccupation with large royal yachts – check. Truss wants a replacement for Britannia even though the Royal family does not. The idea was first floated (sorry) by His Nibs. A Bull in a China shop approach to governance – check.

Apparently, her Whitehall nickname was the “human hand grenade” and Johnson used to say “anything passed her way needed to be handled with care” because “she does tend to blow things up”. Backhanded praise indeed.

So, she may dress like Maggie and sound like Theresa (on a very hesitant day), but in her blind boosterism, Liz is clearly Johnson’s gal – and thus the continuity candidate. But there are problems with that - beyond the likely economic carnage.

Firstly, Liz Truss ain’t no Boris. She has none of his humour, none of the charm that works so well south of the border and none of his florid turn of phrase. Yes, she also attended Oxford and studied politics, philosophy and economics. But Johnson’s incredible (or incredibly irritating) ebullience developed much earlier, perhaps at birth but certainly at Eton.

A letter by his classics master to Stanley Johnson in 1982, resurfaced earlier this year. It observed that the 17-year-old “believes it churlish of us not to regard him as an exception [from] the network of obligation that binds everyone [and was] affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility”.

Ah yes, that’s the kind of self-belief needed to stand at the despatch box week after week. A stint as president of the Oxford University Debating Union doesn’t hurt either, learning to advance opposing arguments as wholeheartedly as those you once professed to support.

Liz Truss has had none of this useful grounding. Her claim to have grown up in a “red wall” seat was dismissed quickly as flatly untrue by former classmates, since Leeds North East was a Tory seat from 1955 to 1997 – by which time Truss had left school and university. Some of the buildings at Roundhay comprehensive were indeed “neglected and falling apart” - on Margaret Thatcher’s watch. Labour rebuilt the school and its official rating rose from “satisfactory” to “outstanding.”


Meanwhile, playing Margaret Thatcher at West Primary hardly endeared Truss to Paisley voters who backed the SNP’s Mhairi Black with more than 50% of the vote in 2019. Perhaps this explains the air of inauthenticity around Truss – for all her protestations of fervent right-wingery and pussy-bow Thatcherism, she’s neither one thing nor the other. Not to the manor born, with the easy self-belief that background bestows upon louche politicians like Johnson. Nor a genuine product of the “lebs” as Etonians described the “masses”.

And actually, despite the fact she was Johnson’s first cabinet backer during his leadership bid in 2019, Truss was also first to organise against him in late 2021, courting sceptical MPs during dinners hosted by Jacob Rees-Mogg and “fizz with Liz” social events. She’s always denied this was part of a leadership bid, but MPs weren’t fooled. One remarked in January, “Liz pressed the button on leadership stuff around three months ago.” That’s a good deal earlier than Rishi Sunak’s act of ‘sabotage’, yet Liz Truss is viewed as the Boris loyalist. Weird.

Rival Penny Mordaunt’s ship sank after a lacklustre performance in TV debates – yet an equally stuttering, wooden Liz Truss surged on. Strange.

She “plotted” first. She has no Boris bluster. She was an instinctive Remainer and can’t debate – though Rishi Sunak must take care not to appear overbearing in tonight’s BBC debate.

She may not even have her finger on the Tory party policy pulse, since polling suggests tax cuts are not a top priority amongst members. But talk of them is nostalgic and reassuring.

Openly promising what cannot be delivered also reminds the party faithful of Boris, the man who gave them a record 80 seat majority and victory in the Red Wall, three short years ago. Even though the bulk of Tory members finally wanted shot of their discredited leader, that inconvenient truth has already become history. In the rewrite, Boris wuz actually robbed, and his buffed-up legacy of derring-do created a Golden Era – in which Johnson saw off every global threat and 'got the big calls right.’

It’s a laughable conceit, but also the only shining light for a party presiding over the worst inflation and the lowest growth rate in Europe. Boris Johnson hasn’t officially endorsed either leadership contender. But he doesn’t need to. If Truss wins, his legacy is secure –the union, not so much.

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