Liz Truss is easy to mock, but she could do more damage than Boris Johnson ever

Liz Truss loves maths. She loves it so much that she used to fire mental arithmetic questions at civil servants during meetings, and once told an audience of female high-flyers that her best advice for their ambitious daughters was to study the subject. She loves maths so much, indeed, that she approaches political decisions like an equation to be solved. The maths professor’s daughter works methodically through every possible option, including some that others would consider beyond the pale; she likes to test every argument, sometimes to exhausting lengths. (As one of her aides used to joke: what’s the difference between a rottweiler and Liz Truss? A rottweiler eventually lets go.) Her logical, dispassionate mathematician’s approach makes her a formidable negotiator and an unsentimental strategist, swift to abandon positions that no longer serve her.

Yet those who know her best say that with it comes a curious emotional detachment, or inability to factor into her calculations how things feel to other people, which is only now being exposed. She can be good company in private, funny and lively. But when colleagues mention her “faintly awkward” manner, or even call her “as close to properly crackers as anybody I’ve met in parliament” (Dominic Cummings, no stranger himself to being called something similar), this particular disconnectedness is often what they mean. It’s shaped the campaign of the woman still most likely to be Britain’s next prime minister, barring a political earthquake, and may soon shape this country’s future.

The first slip was her regional pay policy, ditched amid predictable outrage at the thought of lower salaries for teachers and nurses in the north of the country. The second and most serious was pledging to help with fuel bills by lowering taxes, “not giving out handouts”. (She now claims both policies were misunderstood, and that she wasn’t ruling out direct grants.) Even those sympathetic to Truss expect a U-turn on those handouts, in a climate where focus group participants talk about moving their elderly parents in with them for the winter because it’s the only way everyone can afford to keep warm. “Politics is about emotions, it’s not a mathematical equation,” says a former colleague who has worked closely with her. “If you’re in a situation like we’re in, where people are genuinely terrified, all this ‘wrap yourself in the flag, bang on about how great Britain is’ sounds tone-deaf.” Truss is enviably calm in a crisis, this colleague adds, in part because she strips the emotion away from the issue. But the trouble is that sometimes emotion is key, and empathy matters. What this means for the country, if she does end up leading it through a crisis of staggering proportions, remains poorly understood.

With her extensive cabinet track record and burning ambition, she’s not “the Tory Corbyn”. But nor is she just “Boris in a dress”, although her indulgence of the ridiculous notion that the media are to blame for Johnson’s wilfully self-inflicted downfall suggests similarly Trumpian tactics. She lacks Johnson’s taste for high living – any emerging scandals…

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