Yesterday’s post looked at the new biography of Liz Truss, Out of the Blue.
Her life has been a fascinating one in many ways.
On Saturday, September 3, 2022, shortly before Conservative Party members elected Liz Truss as their leader, The Times published an excellent article complete with photos, ‘Just where is Liz Truss from? Her incredible journey spans three countries and two continents’.
Excerpts follow, emphases mine.
Mary Elizabeth Truss was born in Oxford in 1975 to a couple who lived in Cowley, known for the Anglican religious order, the Cowley Fathers, and car making:
The Truss odyssey begins amid the rackety student townhouses of James Street in Cowley, Oxford. She was born on July 26, 1975 at the nearby John Radcliffe Hospital, the second of five children, to Priscilla, a nurse and teacher and John, a mathematics professor. Their first child, Matthew, died when he was a baby. James Street today is inhabited by a mixture of posh students and local families, with a dash of Cowley seediness thrown in.
Like many of the places where Truss grew up, the area is middle class, left-leaning and studenty, home to a variety of public sector workers and professionals on a budget.
A series of moves followed, all connected with John Truss’s work:
When her father’s junior research fellowship at Oxford University ended, he spent a couple of years as a teacher at King Charles I High School in Kidderminster [Worcestershire], where Truss’s younger brother Chris was born in 1978. After that, he found employment at Paisley College of Technology in Renfrewshire, and in 1979 took the family on the long journey up the M6 to Glasgow. Truss was four at the time.
Handsome civic buildings aside, Paisley is a fairly down-at-heel town, its high street a parade of betting shops, tattoo parlours and discount stores. But leafy Low Road, where the Truss family lived, is a bourgeois haven of Range Rovers and birdsong nestled among council estates and main roads. The Trusses lived in two different houses on the street, one a capacious detached villa, the other a sturdy semi-detached. Her other two brothers, Patrick and Francis, were born in this period.
Liz attended West Primary School and once drew the short straw in having to play Margaret Thatcher in a mock election. Most Scots detest Conservatives, especially in the western half of the country:
“I ended up with zero votes,” she recalled. “I didn’t even vote for myself. Even at that age, we knew it was simply unpopular to be a Tory in the west of Scotland.”
In her spare time, young Liz embraced her parents’ left-wing politics and attended protests:
It was in Paisley that Truss’s mother first introduced her to political activism, taking her on Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches with the local CND chapter, including the famous Greenham Common protests, which she attended as a seven-year-old. A picture from the Paisley Daily Express on October 23, 1985 shows a 10-year-old Liz with her mother and brother Chris proudly holding aloft a new Paisley CND banner, ahead of a planned protest trip to London. The article recounts how the family spent two weeks painstakingly making the flag.
Truss has recalled the DIY nature of her family’s 1980s radicalism. “We did a number of things like marches, protests,” she told an interviewer in 2014. “On one occasion when we went down to London in a bus we had made some nuclear bombs made out of carpet rolls — ours didn’t quite work because it had floral wallpaper on it.”
In 1987, John Truss got a new job as a visiting professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. The year the family spent in Canada transformed Liz’s life:
In July she posted a picture on Instagram of her class at Parkcrest Elementary School in Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver, which also boasts the actor Michael J Fox as an alumnus. The caption read: “30 years ago I spent a year in Canada that changed my outlook on life #pioneerspirit #optimism.”
Moving 6,000 miles across the world would be a challenge to any 12-year-old, but the wide-open spaces and artless optimism of western Canada appear to have invigorated Truss.
The Times was able to find a Canadian classmate of hers, Brenda Montagano, who now teaches at the school both women attended:
“I remember her accent and I remember her being very smart,” Montagano recalled. “Now that I’m a teacher, I recognise that it’s no small feat to change schools, never mind countries, at that age. She came in and was confident, chatty, tried to get to know everyone. She made her mark.”
Upon returning to England, the Trusses settled in Roundhay, a suburb of Leeds:
the closest thing Truss and her brothers had to a permanent family home. It was a household of music lessons and political debate, books and board games, the latter of which Truss “had to win”, her brother Francis once told Radio 4.
Roundhay was an affluent area in the 1980s and remains so now, with the villas that overlook the park selling for more than £1 million. As a teenager, Truss would play tennis here with her brothers and drink cider with schoolfriends. Although the constituency of Leeds East was still Conservative when the Trusses first moved there, Roundhay today is solidly middle-class Labour, with the tapas bars and bookshops to prove it.
Liz was highly critical of Roundhay on the campaign trail during the summer, denouncing its Labour element. The Roundhay ward is part of Leeds City Council, so perhaps that was what she referred to. She was also critical of Roundhay School, which she attended:
“All of my parents’ friends worked in public sector jobs,” Truss has recalled. “The teachers at my school were quite often card-carrying members of the Labour Party and it just was not part of the culture to approve of what the government was doing.”
Truss is profoundly unpopular in Roundhay today. Beyond her politics, locals were outraged when she made disparaging remarks about Roundhay School, which is now a successful comprehensive (motto: “Courtesy, co-operation and commitment”), situated in a handsome redbrick building by the park.
“The reason I am a Conservative is that I saw kids at my school being let down in Leeds,” Truss said during a debate with Rishi Sunak in July.
It’s true that Roundhay was not a particularly good school in the late 1980s. “The fabric of the school was crap, really awful,” said one Roundhay teacher who overlapped with Truss. “There were ceilings collapsing, water leaks, gas leaks. The GCSE pass rate would have been 40 per cent A-C.”
It is possible that Truss thinks that more effort should have been made across the board. She was clearly a gifted student:
… the school improved markedly for sixth form and Truss reportedly received extra tuition along with other Oxbridge applicants, which helped her gain acceptance to Merton College, Oxford, to study philosophy, politics and economics (PPE).
Her years in Roundhay might not have been her best with regard to friendships:
On Ingledew Crescent, neighbours of John Truss, whose politics diverge considerably from his daughter’s, have been asked to keep their views to themselves. Some are too furious to hold back though. “She’s a lying b***h,” said Louise, a long-time neighbour. “She told lies about our local school. She told lies about the assistance she was given. I despise the woman and I feel sorry for her father. It’s not his fault”…
One pupil at Roundhay remembered Truss as “aloof” and a “loner”.
The Oxford years
Going up to Oxford probably came as a relief for Liz Truss:
Like many bumptious high-achievers, it seems she found a more comfortable groove when she went to university in 1993. Even among Oxford colleges, the secluded, introspective Merton has a reputation for academic excellence. “For those of us from regional comprehensives, we’d often had to hide how clever we were,” said one contemporary from her year at Merton. “But at Merton you could meet all these amazing people with similar interests. It was very liberating.”
Oxford was a bastion of Conservatism in those days:
“I met Tories and [found] these people don’t have two heads and they don’t eat babies,” she said of this experience.
That said, she joined the Liberal Democrats:
Unlike most of her Merton contemporaries, though, Truss threw herself into life outside the college, joining the university Liberal Democrat society and becoming its president in the spring term of 1995. Student politics seems to have provided the stage she had been looking for.
Truss’s politics in the Oxford years were a typical Lib Dem mishmash. On social issues she still espoused the left-wing radicalism of her parents. During her speech to the Lib Dem party conference in 1994, made while she was still an Oxford student, she made an impassioned plea to abolish the monarchy.
Roger Crouch, who became president of the Lib Dem society the year after Truss, met her at a freshers’ fair in which she was determined to carpet the party’s entire stall with entreaties to legalise cannabis.
“Even at the time she was determined and willing to pick a fight and stand her ground,” Crouch recalled. “She knew what she thought and was willing to defend it. She was determined, slightly eccentric and challenging. She had an acerbic sense of humour, which I think is why we got on.”
The termcard for Truss’s presidency of the society included events on the legalisation of drugs and prostitution. “She liked to challenge the orthodoxy, often a male orthodoxy,” said Crouch, who is now a teacher.
Even so, she was too libertarian to remain a Liberal Democrat for long:
“Liz was always quite a libertarian Liberal Democrat,” he says. Truss was also involved with the free-market Hayek Society at the university and Crouch recalls one particular discussion in which she advocated for the privatisation of lampposts. “I didn’t see her as someone with a longer-term future in the Lib Dems,” he said. “I think she would have found us quite annoying.”
Liz and her boyfriends made the fringe student newspaper columns, one of which said:
Liz had mad ideas.
Her acceptance of a job with Shell also garnered criticism in the student gossip columns.
Life in London
Liz completed her studies in 1996 when John Major was Prime Minister, one year before Tony Blair’s Labour landslide:
Truss migrated to London after college and the not-quite-northerner became an entrenched southerner. She worked as an economist for Shell and then Cable and Wireless, but she was quickly captivated by the siren call of Tory politics, baffling some of her university peers.
“We came out of Oxford and it was the summer of Euro 96 and Britpop,” said her Merton contemporary. “Then Tony Blair got in. It was a breath of fresh air. The country was full of optimism. To then go and join the Conservative Party, I was like: ‘How does that happen?’ It was really perplexing.”
It was at this time that politics took hold of Liz, even if she was not an immediate success. However, her tenacity saw her through:
In 1998, aged 23, Truss ran for a seat on Greenwich council, a Labour-leaning borough. She lost, and it would be a 12-year political slog before she eventually became MP for South West Norfolk.
Running alongside her in 1998 was Douglas Ellison, who later won a seat on the council. “She was definitely resilient,” he recalled. “I don’t know how many selection processes she went through. There was this enormous self-belief to keep on getting up in front of these audiences and voters to eventually try and get that break. She was a sucker for punishment.”
Ellison wouldn’t necessarily have expected her to become prime minister, but noticed her obvious political skill. “Her manner could be a bit matronly, but she was very good at working people,” he said. “She’s been very lucky in a sense. Sometimes it can be better to be lucky than talented.”
Even though she never got a seat on Greenwich council, she settled in the borough, marrying her accountant husband Hugh O’Leary in 2000, at St Alfege church in Greenwich, just half a mile walk from their current home.
Her Oxford classmate Roger Crouch attended the reception:
It must have been a good one, because I can’t really remember it.
The couple have two daughters:
Frances, 16, and Liberty, 13, who she says is looking forward to hosting sleepovers in Downing Street.
I hope Liberty acted quickly.
On Tuesday, September 6, after Liz became Prime Minister that day, the Daily Mail told us more about Hugh O’Leary, complete with lots of photos:
Liz Truss‘ ‘true blue’ husband watched proudly as the Tory leader was crowned Britain’s third female Prime Minister.
Hugh O’Leary listened on as Ms Truss delivered her first Downing Street address on Tuesday, vowing to to create an ‘aspiration nation’ during her reign as the nation’s 56th Prime Minister …
Mr O’Leary was also by her side when she won Tory leadership on Monday, marking the first high-profile joint appearance by a hitherto private couple.
Ms Truss, 47, described her ‘dry-witted’ accountant spouse as the ‘love of my life’ on Valentine’s Day three years ago. She met Mr O’Leary at the Tory Party Conference in 1997 and said of their first date: ‘I invited him ice skating and he sprained his ankle.’
Mr O’Leary was born in 1974 and grew up in Allerton, Liverpool, before his family moved to Heswall, Wirral.
A former neighbour said ‘Hugh was much more serious’ than his two younger siblings and that ‘he was very earnest and very quiet but a lovely boy,’ the Times reported last week.
O’Leary, 48, became a chartered accountant after studying econometrics and mathematical economics at the London School of Economics (LSE).
The couple started dating and married three years later, settling in Greenwich, South-East London. They have two daughters, Frances and Liberty. O’Leary has worked from home as a house-husband.
A close family friend, cookery writer Mallika Basu, said: ‘They are a great team. Both are keen cooks and very good cooks. She does lovely roasts, he does a good curry.’
There was only one dark period, when Liz had an affair with a fellow Conservative MP. Fortunately, her marriage withstood the strain:
Only once has their relationship been rocked. In 2006, it was revealed Truss had been having an affair with married Tory MP Mark Field. Her marriage survived; his ended.
The only damaging moment came when Tory members in her Norfolk constituency complained they had been kept in the dark about the affair and tried to oust her.
But they were defeated and Truss triumphed.
‘I remember when the tabloid furore was roaring … both times, her friends locally rallied around,’ a source told The Times.
‘There were a number of occasions when the two of them came to various parties and it was quite good to see that people were sympathising and rallying round, particularly when it was over her selection in 2009. It was extremely unfair the way that came up.
‘I don’t really know much about what went on but from my impression, they [O’Leary and Truss] have always been a really strong couple and I have never seen any real sign that it’s had much of an impact.’
What her family think
The article said that Liz’s father John was sad and furious about his daughter’s Conservatism — and probably her ascent to No. 10:
Truss’ left-wing academic father was apparently ‘so saddened’ at her metamorphosis from an anti-monarchist Lib Dem to a Tory that he finds it difficult to talk about it, according to reports.
A former neighbour of maths professor John Truss claims he was ‘sometimes furious’ and could ‘barely bring himself to speak about’ her being a Conservative candidate when she first stood in 2005.
His college, the University of Leeds, has also reportedly banned his colleagues from speaking about Truss as well, The Times reports …
In July, the Daily Express also alleged that the Foreign Secretary’s relationship with her father has been impacted by her ‘conversion to extreme right-wing politics’ and he is really ‘appalled’ by it, a colleague said.
Another university source said: ‘John is distraught at the policies his daughter is advocating in her bid to become PM.’
Another report claimed Professor Truss was ‘so appalled’ by his child’s ‘conversion to extreme Right-wing politics’ that it had impacted their relationship.
We understand that this is considerably wide of the mark. It may be coincidence but we understand Prof Truss has spent part of the time that his daughter has been campaigning abroad in Finland.
‘I think it’s fair to say there is a diplomatic element to this,’ says a source. Family figures have indicated to us that the move was almost certainly to avoid being a distraction to his daughter.
But if he has been dismayed by her transformation from the spirited girl in whom he proudly instilled a strong social conscience into the standard bearer for the Tory Right, he is not saying.
All the same it is worth noting Prof Truss, whose colleagues at Leeds have been ordered not to give interviews about him, declined to campaign for his daughter when she first stood for election in 2001. (Again it may be a coincidence but she was standing in a strongly Labour-supporting constituency.) An indication of how this must have been testing family bonds comes from Prof Truss’s older brother Richard, a retired Church of England vicar who officiated when his niece married accountant, Hugh O’Leary, 22 years ago.
The Truss family, he said, had liberalism ‘in its blood’ adding: ‘It must still be in her blood as well.’
He last saw his niece in March at a party to mark his 80th birthday.
He was, he says, ‘touched’ that the Foreign Secretary had flown in from overseas in order to be there. Of the family politics, he explained: ‘My grandfather lived and died quite young but he used to turn up and campaign for the Liberals before the First World War, so it’s kind of in our genes.’
His understanding of liberal, he says, is of being ‘open and concerned for those who are in need’.
It is also why he hopes the girl he remembers as ‘fun, very bright… questioning and determined’ will do something to heal ‘the division between people in poverty’ as well as changing the Government’s approach to immigration and refugees. ‘I hope she might do something on both fronts,’ he says.
Fortunately, Priscilla Truss supports her daughter:
The former neighbour also said that Truss’ mother, nurse and teacher, Priscilla – who he spoke to before she was selected as a Tory candidate in 2005 – is backing her daughter.
‘She said she was quite torn. She’d agonised over whether to support her because she was her daughter, or not to support her because she was a Tory,’ he told The Times. ‘In the end, she decided that family ties should win out.’
Liz’s three brothers also support her:
Paradoxically for all this apparent family dissent, there is also considerable support for a politician whose list of jobs in government reads like a cut-out-and-keep guide to becoming PM: Under-secretary of state for childcare and education; Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary; Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor; Chief Secretary to the Treasury, International Trade Secretary; and finally heading the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Her three brothers, Chris, Patrick and Francis, turned out to support her at the final hustings at Wembley on Wednesday evening. As for her mother Priscilla, she has been a near constant presence as her daughter has criss-crossed the country seeking support.
‘For the children, Priscilla has always been there for them,’ says a family friend. ‘They always knew that if they needed her she would be there.
‘The fact is Liz is proud of her politics but she is also proud of her mother’s political views, too.’
The article says that her mother’s family’s politics have been pivotal in shaping Liz’s worldview:
If anything, it is from her mother’s side of the family that we find the crucible of Liz Truss’s convictions.
The roots of the Grasby family, Priscilla’s maiden name, are deep in the rural landscape around Driffield, East Yorkshire. Priscilla’s grandfather George fought in the Great War with the East Yorkshire regiment and lost a leg at the Battle of Passchendaele.
After the war, he married Mary and became a cobbler on Adelphi Street. Mike Kennie, who lived next door, said the old soldier’s disability was no handicap and that he would ‘often be climbing ladders outside the building.’
His father William was a shepherd and inn keeper. Today the pub he ran, The Ship Inn at Langtoft, is still in business. But the link came as a shock to the current publican Martin Weaver.
‘Can you repeat that? Liz Truss, our probable next Prime Minister, is connected to this pub. I’m astonished.
‘In fact I’m shocked. This has been a pub since the days of Queen Victoria but I never knew that Truss’s great-grandfather was brought up here as a boy. I can’t wait to tell the locals.’
The local Tory MP, Sir Greg Knight, looks forward to having a drink with Miss Truss in her great-grandfather’s former home as a matter of urgency.
I hope he hurried.
‘Why not? It’s a great part of the countryside and I am pleased to learn of the family connection.’ It was George who laid the foundation for the socially-upward Truss family. His son, also George, won a place to read classics at Queen’s College, Oxford.
During World War II he served with the Army in India in an intelligence role. After the war he became a teacher, later a head of classics at Bolton School for 25 years. His daughter, Liz’s mother, was one of his pupils.
According to one former pupil, the pipe-smoking Mr Grasby was very much a ‘post-Second World War socialist’. It was into this Left-leaning family tradition that Miss Truss was born in 1975. An older brother Matthew died in infancy the previous year. Three brothers followed her.
Here’s something we didn’t know:
When Liz was two, they moved to Poland and then, when she was three to Paisley, where her father had been appointed a maths lecturer at Paisley College of Technology. She started at the West Primary School, where she recalls, discipline was still imposed with the leather strap for miscreants.
Liz’s brothers talked about what it was like growing up with her. Let’s begin with a neighbour’s reminiscence:
… she revelled in her position as the only girl in a family of boys. ‘Her brothers were very sporty and her parents active so there was always something going on,’ says a Roundhay neighbour.
Youngest brother Francis said it was a very musical home: ‘We’d do music practice every night because my dad’s a very keen musician, and that was sort of enforced.’ Recalling playing board games such as Cluedo and Monopoly, Francis said of his sister: ‘My dad would say she cheated to win. She was someone who had to win. She created a special system to work out how she could win, and then if she was losing she might sort of disappear rather than lose.’
What her friends say
The paper reported that Liz’s friends were on board with her candidacy as Party leader and had every confidence in her:
We have spoken to family, friends, foes and even former romantic partners. They all agree on one thing: the Liz Truss they know is brighter and far more intelligent than some of her leaden appearances on hustings and in interviews might have suggested.
There is, too, something of a chameleon character to her that manages to identify her with practically everyone. That, of course, may be her skill as a politician — she is after all the longest-serving Cabinet minister in recent times.
But as a one-time ally says: ‘The key to understanding her is that she actually says what she believes.’ What perhaps is even more bizarre is the contempt she has these days for liberal group-think.
The paper caught up with friends of hers from Roundhay:
While still at school she joined the youth branch of the Lib Dems. A fellow student was Kiron Reid and the two were photographed holding a party flag at a mass trespass at Twyford Down, Hampshire, in protest at then Home Secretary Michael Howard’s Criminal Justice Bill clamping down on illegal raves.
Reid was also a friend of her then boyfriend, Wyn Evans, another Lib Dem supporter who was at Leeds Polytechnic.
Reid, who is still a party activist, told us: ‘Liz always had a liberal social and economic view of the world. Am I surprised she’s now a Tory?
‘Well, even back then she was a huge fan of Mrs Thatcher which was not a commonly held position in the North of England. She regarded her as a strong woman leader.
‘It was a long time ago and I was often drunk or hung over at Lib Dem conferences but she always argued her position strongly.
‘Wyn and Liz went out with each other for at least a year, maybe 18 months or more.’
Mr Evans is clearly no longer a fan of his former girlfriend, tweeting in April: ‘Biggest war in Europe for 75 years and our Foreign Secretary, in a major speech, can barely utter the word Europe. This is a speech of an isolated, detached nation still carrying notions of being a global power. Depressingly sad and woefully dangerous.’
A professor speaks
The Mail‘s article ends with the words of one of Liz’s lecturers at Oxford:
Perhaps Marc Stears, one of her Oxford lecturers, offers the most intriguing insight on our next PM.
‘That Truss appears to be on the cusp of becoming Prime Minister, rather than those candidates from central casting of PPE at Oxford, shows not only that I grossly underestimated her 25 years ago but also that the qualities our politics rewards have changed beyond recognition,’ he says.
‘Truss lacks the media elan of Tony Blair and David Cameron. She lacks the dogged determination of Gordon Brown or the patient, long-term vision of Margaret Thatcher.’
Then again, he will not be the first person to have underestimated Mary Elizabeth Truss.
Maybe the prof nailed it in saying she lacked a patient, long-term vision. Then again, with the Conservatives having lost two years’ worth of policy making to the pandemic, time was against her.
Tomorrow’s post looks at the New Statesman‘s fascinating profile of Liz Truss’s brand of politics and The Guardian‘s analysis of her time in Parliament as well as Downing Street.