Book review: Out of the Blue by James Heale and Harry Cole

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I don’t need to recap the events of Liz Truss’s glass-floor shattering, 44-day premiership – after all, it was only last month. Suffice to say, it was a humiliating disaster from start to finish that will see Truss’s name braided forever with political hubris and rank incompetency. Out of the Blue: The Inside Story of the Unexpected Rise and Rapid Fall of Liz Truss is a zippy account of how things went so wrong so quickly from Spectator diary columnist James Heale and Harry Cole, the political editor of the Sun. Clearly, there is no one better placed to document the recently deceased career of Britain’s foremost public humiliation fetishist; Cole and Heale’s book is well sourced and pacey, a sketchy but engaging first draft of history.

The biography follows Truss from her middle-class upbringing in Leeds – her father was a maths lecturer, but a passion for mental arithmetic seems to have been the extent of left-leaning Professor Truss’s influence on his daughter – and on to Oxford, where she enjoyed a career as a minor campus provocateur. An active Lib Dem as a student, she ditched the liberals for the Tories before graduating, went to work at Shell and shortly thereafter met and, in 1999, married, Hugh O’Leary, an accountant. Truss spent the ’00s in furious pursuit of a parliamentary seat. She narrowly lost Calder Valley in 2005 (finding time on the campaign trail to have a widely publicised affair with Mark Field, the MP sent to mentor her) before winning South West Norfolk in 2010 (her selection much dogged by the shadow of the affair).

In Westminster, Truss began a steady climb up the ministerial ranks, first as a parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Department for Education, and then into cabinet as DEFRA Secretary, then Justice Secretary, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, before heading to the Department for International Trade and ultimately becoming Foreign Secretary in 2021. The picture Cole and Heale paint of Truss is one of a stubborn and consistent ideologue, a woman interested in her own advancement, in the unfettered free market and very much not interested in the input of others.

It is hard as a member of the Labour Party to see what can have impressed anyone about this strange woman beyond her thick skin and an ability to get knocked down and get back up again having learned seemingly nothing at all. One is left with the conclusion that her skill as a politician, in as much as she has any, comes from her ability to play to the Conservative Party. A revealing line comes when a journalist questioned why Truss dressed as Margaret Thatcher during a leadership debate, a choice that would seem to be deeply odd and off-putting to most normal people. The people who will be voting in this contest, a Truss aide replied, love Thatcher. And so they do. Truss won because she knew how to indulge the id of a party 12 years in power, which had lost the ability and indeed the desire to reckon with economic and electoral realities.

Reckoned with or not, however, these things are real and they can hurt you. Most people who read Out of the Blue will do so, one guesses, not for its thorough treatment of Truss’s ministerial career but for its section on her catastrophic time at No 10. There is clearly a degree of score settling and blame apportioning going on in the briefings to Cole and Heale (someone really hates Wendy Morton, the briefly chief whip who was apparently referred to as “Wendy Moron”; Kwasi Kwarteng has an interestingly gloves-off, on-the-record go at Dominic Raab, who he says “fucked up” as Foreign Secretary over the “disaster” in Kabul) – but there is, after all, plenty of blame to go round.

Probably the clearest impression the book leaves is the sheer extent to which Truss and her diabolically poor stint as leader are a product of Tufton Street, the interlinked set of right-wing think tanks – the Adam Smith Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), the Centre for Policy Studies, the Taxpayers’ Alliance and others – which are headquartered together a short walk from Westminster. These organisations campaign for wholesale deregulation, libertarian economic policy and to more generally sluice rancid offcuts from failed Republican primary contenders’ policy offers into the British political sphere. From Truss’s period working at Reform, to the IEA’s support for her backbench libertarian manoeuvres as founder of the Free Enterprise Group, through to her quest for childcare deregulation while a junior education minister, her staffing choices as a Secretary of State and the involvement of IEA economists Andrew Lilico and Julian Jessop in the planning for her mini-Budget, Truss is Tufton Street’s foremost political avatar and export, acting in unquestionable ideological lockstep. If there is a takeaway from this book beyond “don’t make Liz Truss Prime Minister”, it is that these people must be made to own Truss’s failure just as completely as Truss herself.

Truss’s personal life has been much commented on, something which Cole and Heale address at various points in spectacularly legalled tones. Particularly notable is the authors’ assertion, when discussing Truss’s pregnancy some weeks after the conclusion of the Field affair, that “Truss told friends that the baby was her husband’s, and Hugh O’Leary is named as the father on the birth certificate”. Elsewhere, Cole and Heale allude to rumours of an affair with her erstwhile Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng by noting that sources close to the pair assert that they have never been anything other than “political bedfellows”. The book also reports on a dossier circulating during the leadership campaign, detailing an affair with an aide, allegations of sexual misconduct and an implausible rumour of a sex tape.

The book makes odd reading for Labour members. On one hand, a blow-by-blow of Truss tanking her own administration and her party with it provides much to enjoy for anyone with a well-developed hatred of the Conservative Party. On the other hand, we do all happen to be living in the country whose economy her Ayn Rand sub-Thatcher larping so dramatically crashed. Out of the Blue is a farce it’s hard to uncomplicatedly enjoy, knowing it’s at all of our expense.

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