Ahead of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Leadership Conference in 2014, then senior diplomat Sir Simon Fraser outlined his own thoughts on effective leadership. Eight years on, his advice remains visible on the Gov UK site. Though pitched at ambassadors and senior diplomats, in the brief age of Truss, it is not so much guidance, more a mirror in which all the PM’s failings are painfully reflected.
Good leaders are good communicators
“Good leaders are good communicators. You have to do it all the time. It means thinking about what other people know and how they are experiencing what you are doing, especially change.”
Liz Truss does not have a communication style, she has a communications void. In interviews, her halting delivery and blank pauses create the impression of a leader either lost for words, out of her depth, or both.
When the pauses stop and the words begin, she is no more convincing. In the interviews she has deigned to give in her brief prime ministerial career to date, Truss has spoken like a charmless parrot left in the office of a policy analyst. Regardless of the question, her answers are always the same – externalise blame to Putin, a stark global economic picture, demand credit for an energy package that was politically unavoidable, and use the words “act,” “decisively,” and “growth” as if they were benevolent gods whose names could be invoked as a spell to escape scrutiny.
This approach shows near zero intellectual flexibility to understand the relevance of the question and little basic emotional intelligence or empathy towards the British people.
Set your vision
“You have to set a vision. That requires a clear sense of purpose, a clear sense of direction and a clear picture of the destination”
Truss’s raison d’être is clear; she advocates for the kind of high-growth, low-tax economy that can be (created) dreamed up in the intellectual petri-dish of the Institute for Economic Affairs, but is annihilated on contact with reality. She has talked of little else since becoming prime minister – albeit the economic catastrophe she’s created means no media oxygen for anything else.
A clear picture of the destination, however, is sorely lacking. We have heard Truss offer abstract ideas about growing pies, with the suggestion that this will magically fund the public services that need to be cut in order to grow it. This is not a vision, it’s an over-extended analogy. Moreover, it’s an analogy that resonates around a think tank table, but not around a kitchen table.
What will Truss’s libertarian utopia look like for the mass of the British people? Why should we share Truss’s faith that slashing the state is the best way to grow it? Why should the next chapter in our national story see us shovel our gold into the pockets of the rich?
Either through incompetence or indifference, Truss has made no attempt to answer these profound questions. Even her conference speech, in which she raised her speaking game to become at least bog standard, her vision of Britain and its people was tediously transactional; more money in pockets, growing pies, and tax cuts. JFK invited Americans to ask what they could do for their country. Truss offers Brits merely a couple of quid on their payslip.
“It is more important to make good decisions than fast decisions.”
At time of writing, Liz Truss has been prime minister for just a month. Ten days of this were given over to national mourning, and nearly a fortnight was absorbed by the backlash to her “mini budget” which she rammed through almost as soon as she could, a deployment that had all the dismal danger of an unruly toddler being suddenly turned loose behind the controls of a 747.
Truss and Kwarteng planned to change Britain’s economic settlement fundamentally, a devilishly complex, generational act that is fraught with risk. Other than on the energy package, they faced no immediate urgency to bring measures forward. Rather than taking their time, consulting their cabinet, the party or even the country; rather than weighing up a range of options and giving their ideas time to breathe, they opted instead for one of the most ham-fisted smash-and-grab operations in British political history.
The consequences of that will be borne by renters and mortgage holders for years to come. In her ill-considered, wilfully-deaf excitement, Truss inadvertently fired an Exocet missile at the Conservative Party’s own core support.
“A good leader will put a lot of effort into building the right team around him or her. You need people you trust, who are on your side, who challenge and are honest with you and whose judgement you respect.”
To be fair to Truss, her ability to pick people who are on her side- or at least were originally – is not up for dispute. Her cabinet is a monument to her own vanity, consisting exclusively of MPs who backed her leadership bid.
Her ability to accept challenges, by contrast, is non-existent. While Thatcher may have retained “the wets” in her early years as PM, sensing she lacked the space to do otherwise, Truss excised everyone who might have offered a contrary point of view, regardless of talent. Grant Shapps may be a spiv, but he has ample ministerial experience and a flair for communication. Nevertheless, he failed to bend the knee to Truss and was subsequently told “there’s no room at the inn.” Michael Gove, a man of questionable loyalty but undoubted intellect, was similarly cast out.
Good leaders build teams whose expertise is complementary. They refine their position through informed discussion. Truss, meanwhile, casts out the heretics in case they dilute her faith.
Rapport with the people
“A leader has to have a strong rapport with, and understanding of, the organisation and the people he or she is leading: what they want, and what they will accept if they can’t have what they want.”
Liz Truss has made it to the top of the Conservative Party and the country, but this doesn’t imply she understands either. The Conversative Party of 2022 is now a cluster of mistrustful tribes united only by the colour of their rosettes. Truss ascended to the leadership not because of a unique connection with the parliamentary party, but because she narrowly squeaked onto the members ballot, and then trotted out whatever counterproductive absurdities the Tory membership wanted to hear.
Once in office, she took an incredibly blasé approach to governance, aiming to ram through policy now and get buy-in later when the presumed results came through. The effect was much like a dissolute husband aiming to take his wife on holiday the winnings from a 100-1 bet.
The wages of that sin are now paid by the death of party discipline. At the Conservative Party Conference, Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt and Welsh Secretary Robert Buckland spoke out in favour of uprating benefits by the rate of inflation, while Home Secretary and proto-fascist Suella Braverman demanded a cut to benefits spending.
This came on top of her accusing colleagues of staging a ‘coup’ over the 45p tax rate. Even milquetoast MPs with no previous record of rebellion are now openly admitting to having lobbied the government for a U-turn.
Her understanding of the country is similarly poor. Pollsters JL Partners constructed a word cloud based on the public’s views of Liz Truss, and it reads like a paranoiac’s nightmare. “Incompetent,” “useless,” “untrustworthy,” “dangerous,” “idiot,” and “disaster” were among the main responses, indicating a profound lack of rapport with the voters.
Will things get better?
Sir Simon’s final words of advice were optimistic –
“Keep moving forward, be resilient, remember that things will get better. And smile.”
Truss may be prepared to keep moving forward, and clearly possesses an unshakeable, cult-like faith that her ideology will make things better. The rest of us can draw our own conclusions based on her leadership style.
Judging from the first month of her time in office, we can save the biggest smiles for when she’s gone.
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