A number of reasons can be found to explain the rise of Liz Truss, the recently promoted foreign secretary, but one stands out. She is extremely popular with Conservative party members. We know this thanks to a regular survey of just 1,400 Tories which carries an outsized influence on party affairs.
The ConservativeHome website’s cabinet rankings may be little known beyond politics junkies but, despite their doubtful methodology, they are taken seriously by ministers. This is especially so when many think the collapse in the prime minister’s authority means a challenge next year is a real prospect.
The website, owned by Lord Ashcroft, a former Tory Treasurer, and run by Paul Goodman, a former MP, is aimed squarely at the party grassroots. Each month, a panel of about 2,000 members is asked to rate the cabinet. Around 1,400 reply, though in quiet periods the number can fall below 1,000. Yet Tories take it seriously. Boris Johnson also pays attention, commenting to friends on his own satisfaction rating — especially when it is going down.
Truss has been the standout party favourite, in the lead for a year. The survey at the end of November gave her a net satisfaction rating of +82, nearly 30 points above the man widely assumed to be the heir apparent, the chancellor Rishi Sunak. Johnson, by contrast, had moved into negative territory with a rating of -17 (even before the row over Downing Street parties). Truss’s score is a particular achievement for a woman who supported Remain in the Brexit referendum. But she shook off the Remainer tag early and as trade secretary was seen as celebrating Brexit.
Among the public, there is less evidence of enthusiasm. Polls have shown Sunak as the most popular Tory figure, while the former health and foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt — who retains a healthy chunk of support among MPs — is also ahead of Truss.
But her popularity among activists is easily explained. She is seen as the leading advocate of the free-market economics for which party members once thought they stood. While other Tories have retreated in the face of Johnsonian interventionism, Truss remains an unapologetic advocate of these principles. In her role as equalities minister, she redefined the challenges in ways that pleased party members. As foreign secretary she is an Atlanticist and a security hawk.
A further run down the list confirms three trends, including intolerance of serial underperformers and enthusiasm for Tories who exude positivity.
But the most important is that smaller-state rightwingers and assertive Brexiters are the most loved by members. Second to Truss was David Frost, the hardline chief Brexit negotiator, who compounded Johnson’s political problems by quitting this month. So Johnson’s decision to give the Brexit brief to Truss, a hardliner on the issue, poses a dilemma for her. Johnson wants to de-escalate tensions with the EU. Frost’s departure was due in large part to this. Truss will want to prove she can solve the Northern Ireland protocol crisis, but not want to be seen by the party as a Brexit compromiser.
Those battling to succeed Johnson can read the runes. Sunak’s ratings have been slipping since he imposed a National Insurance rise to fund healthcare. The most recent ConservativeHome rankings were followed within days by news reports of his long-term plan to cut income tax before the next election. Coincidence, or a plea to party members to remember his Thatcherite credentials?
Why do these ratings matter beyond being Westminster clickbait? Because the surest indicator of a politician’s chances of winning the leadership is that they are closely aligned with the dominant views of the MPs and the membership. MPs will look at who is most likely to help them win their seat but ideological alignment is at least as important for many of them — and certainly for activists. If contenders understand that the party is looking for a certain political position, they will trim their sails to the prevailing wind.
The danger for Conservatives is of aligning too far with activists who can be detached from the wider nation. And not all Tories are convinced by Truss. One critic calls her a “pound-shop Boris”, purveying the same empty boosterism but without his star quality. This is harsh — her views, while expedient, have been largely consistent.
A bigger problem for Truss is that leadership contests are often a reaction to what went before. If Johnson is removed, Tories may be looking for a more managerial figure. So she is no shoo-in, not least because MPs decide the two names that are presented to the membership and can stop a candidate getting to the members. Her new brief does, however, give her a chance to consolidate support among Brexit purist MPs, if she sticks to their line.
But such speculation is just that. Whether or not Truss can claim the prize, what is important is that the rankings suggest a party moving in her political direction and away from the economic interventionism and higher public spending of the Johnson era and that his electoral platform may struggle to outlast him.
The poll is a harbinger of the future direction of the Conservative party. It tells us is that, just as fealty to Brexit was a prerequisite in the last contest, so adherence to a smaller state, lower tax, a strong line on the EU and socially conservative policies will be required of any hopeful in the next.