Liz Truss is wooden. And it works

26 July 2022

4:47 PM

26 July 2022

4:47 PM

Barring a disaster — given her record, that’s not impossible — Liz Truss will soon be the prime minister. She didn’t slip up in last night’s debate. She even surprised observers by showing mental dexterity when being needled by Rishi Sunak. Nevertheless, the adjective most often used to describe her – I’ve seen it in nearly everything I’ve read about her in the last few weeks – is wooden. But is Liz making woodenness her selling point? The loud clap last night after she admitted she lacked presentation skills suggests that she is.

We’re all given a demeanour, and for all the spin doctors and image makers we might employ to buff us up, they can only work with what they’re given. A public figure will always have more than the correct amount of something. Too flippant. Too serious. Too interesting. Too bland. Too relaxed. Too uptight. Nobody is ever, like Baby Bear’s porridge, just right. And as Bruce Forsyth once remarked, even when you’re very, very popular, a certain percentage of the general public still really dislikes you.

Truss will follow in a long tradition of wooden Tory party leaders, selected by the parliamentary party using the scientific principle known as Buggins’s Turn. John Major was wooden. Theresa May was wooden. Ted Heath was wooden. Iain Duncan Smith was spectacularly wooden. William Hague somehow managed to be both wooden and quirky, like a Victorian puppet. Margaret Thatcher is of course a special case, of whom more later.

Labour are apparently smacking their chops at the prospect of PM Truss, but if I was them I would keep the beers in the fridge for just a bit longer. Because it strikes me that Truss and Keir Starmer are pretty evenly matched when it comes to woodenness, though he is more varnished pine to her classic oak. They are equally given to strange emphases and inflections in their speech and a halting deportment.

What will Truss v Starmer PMQs be like? Like two smart alecs speaking in snarky code, maybe, or a confrontation scene in Captain Scarlet? I think that, in a way, they will go together, like a kidney stone and a urinary tract infection.

It is not necessarily a person’s woodenness that is the problem, but their nervous awareness of their own woodenness. It catches, and makes those looking on feel nervous too. Both Thatcher and Gordon Brown were unusual, disconnected-seeming people who lacked normal social graces. Brown was terribly, cripplingly, aware of this, and it made your heart stop in your throat, while Thatcher clearly thought she was the normal person, and it was everybody else who was strange.

Liz Truss somehow combines both these qualities. The often-clipped cheese speech given at the 2014 Conservative party conference is fascinating – on the surface she seems relaxed, but every time she pauses for laughter or applause she does something indescribable with her features that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on another human face. I’ve tried to capture it and the best I can come up with is ‘I’ve just been smacked over the head – but you know what, I really enjoyed it!’ She did it again last night when she leaned into the microphone and said: ‘Maybe I’ve learned from that.’

Her acid indignation at the level pears coming into the UK – ‘that is a disgrace’ – is delivered with a weight of moral condemnation more appropriate for human trafficking or sexual abuse.

‘Be yourself’ is often the very worst advice you can give anyone. The bright idea that Theresa May should lean into her woodenness – dancing on to the conference stage – was wrong headed, because it was clearly something she would never have thought of doing. After the initial fun of the surprise was over, it turned out that the stunt had merely added another layer of awkward.

I don’t think there is anything much Liz Truss can do about her woodenness, unless she hires Rishi Sunak to do his needy, speedy turn right next to her whenever she appears in public, which gifted her an icy dignity by contrast in last night’s debate. She seems to have decided not even to try to look like she’s enjoying herself, which is a relief, though this adjustment merely shifts the centre of her stiffness, a little bit.

My advice to her would be to make it impossible for people to use her woodenness against her by tightening up her ship. Whichever bright spark posted the tweet stating that she was ‘ready to hit the ground on Day One’, leaving out the crucial word ‘running’, should not be let anywhere near anything important, for starters. (If that was Truss herself, yikes.) She must be put nowhere near cheeky people, especially cheeky children. The self-combusting tendency of Number 10 must end. There must be a strict policy of Gaffe Zero, starting now. She needs hard, clever, ruthless people around her – are there any? – to enforce this, to spot problems coming and stamp on them.

A wooden prime minister who led a competent administration, that talks about the big things and leaves the presentation and the small internal stuff to tick over unseen, is something we could put up with. It might even get to be endearing — in a stiff, very British way.

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