The Front-Runner to Replace Boris Johnson Wants to Be a New Iron Lady

BIRMINGHAM, England — When a British journalist asked Liz Truss on Wednesday to name the character flaw she would most like to fix, she confessed, “I think some of my friends would say I’m a bit relentless.”

Her answer elicited chuckles from a gathering of Conservative Party members; after all, that question is usually an invitation for a politician to resort to a humble brag. Yet this time it had the ring of truth, coming after a campaign in which Ms. Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary, has piled up big-name endorsements, upbeat media coverage and a seemingly unshakable lead in polls of party members.

With less than two weeks left in the race to replace Prime Minister Boris Johnson, her march to Downing Street looks nothing if not relentless. After a shaky start, Ms. Truss, 47, has cemented her status as the odds-on favorite to become Britain’s third female leader, after Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May.

The results of the Tory leadership contest will not be announced until Sept. 5, after the ballots of the party’s 160,000 or so dues-paying members are counted. Ms. Truss’s underdog opponent, Rishi Sunak, delivered a robust and well-received performance at the event in Birmingham, a reminder that fortunes can change swiftly in politics.

“You’re acting like this is already over — and it’s not,” a visibly peeved Mr. Sunak told the moderator, John Pienaar.

Rishi Sunak, Ms. Truss’s rival for party leadership, being interviewed by John Pienaar, a journalist, at the event in Birmingham on Tuesday.Credit…Andy Rain/EPA, via Shutterstock

The static campaign has unfolded amid rapidly deepening economic turmoil. Household energy bills are spiking, inflation has soared into double digits, and the Bank of England warns of a prolonged recession. But none of that has dented the aura of inevitability around Ms. Truss.

British newspapers are already busy speculating about whom she will name to her cabinet and when she will pass an “emergency budget.” The first question is easier to answer than the second. Despite spending a month on the campaign trail, Ms. Truss has offered very few clues about how she would confront an economic crisis that many experts view as the gravest in a generation.

Instead, she has vowed to cut taxes, discard remaining European Union regulations, and shrink the size of Britain’s government — crowd-pleasing measures, tailor-made for the members of the Conservative Party, who tend to be older, wealthier, and more right-wing than the party’s voters, to say nothing of the broader British electorate.

Ms. Truss has stood by Mr. Johnson and continues to serve in his lame-duck government. But she has wrapped herself in the mantle of Thatcher, an anti-Communist warrior, free-market evangelist and conservative icon who entered Downing Street at a time of comparable economic hardship in 1979.

The Fall of Boris Johnson, Explained

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The Fall of Boris Johnson, Explained

Turmoil at Downing Street. Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson said he would step down less than three years after a landslide election victory, following a series of scandals that have ensnared his government. Here’s what led to this:

The Fall of Boris Johnson, Explained

The Pincher case. Mr. Johnson’s downfall is connected with the resignation of Chris Pincher, a Conservative deputy chief whip, after he admitted to having groped two men. Outrage grew as it was revealed that Mr. Johnson was aware of prior sexual misconduct allegations against him when he appointed him; the prime minister had previously denied knowing about the accusations.

The Fall of Boris Johnson, Explained

A wave of resignations. The revelations prompted the unexpected resignation of two of Mr. Johnson’s highest-ranking ministers — the chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, and the health secretary, Sajid Javid. That was followed by a flurry of resignations of other ministers and officials, capped by Mr. Johnson’s decision to step down.

The Fall of Boris Johnson, Explained

The ‘Partygate’ scandal. Since late last year, Mr. Johnson had been grappling with reports about parties he attended in Downing Street while Covid lockdown rules were in force. An internal inquiry found that 83 people violated the rules at parties, and the police imposed hundreds of fines, including one on Mr. Johnson, for breaches of social distancing. Mr. Johnson survived a no-confidence vote triggered by the scandal, but was left reeling politically.

The Fall of Boris Johnson, Explained

Other scandals. The prime minister’s reputation had also been tarnished by his staunch defense of a Conservative lawmaker for violating lobbying rules, his government’s contentious plans to change the system that investigated that lawmaker and the costly refurbishment of his apartment at No. 10 Downing Street, for which he secretly used funds from a Conservative Party donor.

“The principles she believed in were the right principles,” Ms. Truss said, drawing her biggest applause of the evening. “Enterprise, personal responsibility, giving people control over their own money, putting money back in people’s pockets.”

When the subject switched to national security, Ms. Truss was asked how she would react if faced with a decision to unleash Britain’s nuclear arsenal to defend the country. “It’s an important duty of the prime minister,’’ she said. “I’m ready to do that.”

Such steeliness appeals to the party faithful, even if she has yet to persuade many party members that she is the second coming of the woman known as the “Iron Lady.”

“She’s a pound shop Maggie,” said Tony Clark, a member who lives outside Birmingham, using a colloquialism that refers to a discounted version of a great figure. Mr. Clark said he nevertheless planned to vote for her because he believed she was a genuine conservative. Mr. Sunak, while “intellectually brilliant,” came across as vaguely “smarmy,” he said.

Ms. Truss has cast herself as a successor to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, seen here in 1980, who remains a hero to many British Conservatives. Credit…Gerald Penny/Associated Press

Jacqueline Naylor, 79, a retired nurse, said she, too, might end up backing Ms. Truss, though Mr. Sunak’s robust performance had made her decision harder. She blamed him for precipitating Mr. Johnson’s downfall by resigning as chancellor of the Exchequer after scandals engulfed the government. Ms. Truss, she noted, stuck by the prime minister, who remains popular with the rank-and-file.

“Liz is ticking all the boxes for the party members,” said Edward Tolcher, 62, a school finance director from Solihull, a nearby suburb. He is supporting Mr. Sunak but thinks the race is basically over.

Ms. Truss’s laser focus on orthodox Tory positions has played better than Mr. Sunak’s pitch, which is built on telling voters hard truths, like that Britain must tame inflation before it cuts taxes. She has also steadily improved as a campaigner, showing confidence and flashes of humor.

“A lot of people thought she would be very wooden, and she has performed better than expectations,” said Gavin Barwell, a former chief of staff to Mrs. May.

But he and others say Ms. Truss may be pushing problems down the road by refusing to be more open about her plans. Her appeal to a narrow constituency, they add, could make it hard to hold together the coalition that Mr. Johnson forged in 2019. His election victory that year was built by luring disillusioned Labour Party voters from the industrial Midlands and north, who were drawn to his promise to “get Brexit done.”

Reducing taxes, rolling back regulations and shrinking the state are less attractive policies for working-class voters in these so-called “red wall” areas. Many are comfortable with a generous social safety net and view the government as a bulwark against what they believe is a system rigged against them.

The Political Situation in Britain

After getting ensnared in various scandals, Boris Johnson said he would step down as prime minister of Britain, clearing the way for a new leadership race inside the Conservative Party.

  • Johnson’s Lies: The British prime minister thought he could swagger his way through any scandal, but his cavalier attitude toward the truth brought an end to his tumultuous tenure.
  • Final Candidates: Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss emerged as the last two contenders vying to succeed Mr. Johnson. In making their pitch to voters, they have both drawn inspiration from Margaret Thatcher.
  • Economic Woes: As energy prices and inflation soar, critics say the transition at the top is leaving Britons in limbo at a tumultuous moment.
  • What’s Next for Johnson?: Few expect the departing British prime minister to cede the spotlight, or abandon the prospect of one day regaining his position.

“Liz Truss is offering policies which not only risk fueling the current economic crisis but are also at odds with the values of these new Conservative voters,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at Kent University.

Ms. Truss, who served as trade secretary before becoming foreign secretary, boasts about signing post-Brexit trade deals with Japan, Australia, and other countries. Yet her free-trade instincts could also be a mixed blessing with those recent Tory converts, who want the state to defend British industry against foreign competitors.

“She’s more of a free trader than I am,” said Robert E. Lighthizer, who served as the United States Trade Representative under former President Donald J. Trump. He met Ms. Truss multiple times to negotiate a trans-Atlantic trade deal, which has since been put on a back burner by President Biden.

Ms. Truss at a Group of 7 meeting of foreign and development ministers in Liverpool, in December.Credit…Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse, via Pool/AFP Via Getty Images

Still, Mr. Lighthizer said he was impressed by Ms. Truss, noting that she argued her positions forcefully and came across as an “authentic conservative.”

Her first task would be to unify a party that has been sundered by the drama of the Johnson years and is bleeding support among voters. A poll last week by the firm YouGov showed Conservatives trailing Labour by 15 percentage points, the largest deficit in nearly a decade.

Critics worry that Britain’s relations with the European Union will deteriorate further under Ms. Truss, given that she is supported by the party’s most ardent pro-Brexit wing. She introduced legislation that would rescind the trade arrangements in Northern Ireland, adopted just three years ago as part of Brexit, and has vowed to pass that bill.

“She’s clearly adept at the old game of blaming the French and the Europeans more generally to curry favor with the base of her party,” said Peter Ricketts, a former British ambassador to Paris. “Reconnecting with Europe will be vital after this contest, and Truss is the last person to address that.”

For all those concerns, some said it was foolhardy to predict how Ms. Truss might act once in Downing Street. She has shown a lifelong capacity to adapt politically, they said, most notably on Brexit, which she ardently opposed before the 2016 referendum and just as ardently embraced afterward.

“She’s got a small number of deeply held commitments that she won’t move from,” said Marc Stears, who tutored her when she was a student at Oxford University. “After that, she’ll look for what gives her the best political lift. You could call it opportunism or pragmatism, depending on if you’re a friend or an enemy.”

Ms. Truss is greeted by Nadhim Zahawi, chancellor of the Exchequer, and supporters in Birmingham, on Tuesday.Credit…Anthony Devlin/Getty Images
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