Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Why the return of Liz Truss is so fraught for Rishi Sunak

Liz Truss is back — again. It is 436 days since the ex-prime minister broke her brief post-premiership quiet with a 4000-word essay in the Telegraph and a Spectator sit-down interview. And Truss’ media output remains relentless. 

Intervention after intervention, the former PM has once more established herself as an integral fixture of British politics — much to No 10’s chagrin and, evidently, LOTO’s glee. 

Truss’ latest rehabilitation gambit is a new book, Ten Years to Save the West, and a surrounding series of publicity interviews. Despite the title suggesting the tome is a foreign affairs opus, the book consciously relitigates her abrupt fall from grace in October 2022. But Truss’ memoir does not merely deal with the near-past: it doubles as a political manifesto and, in theory at least, a platform for future advances. 

But one cannot simply separate the aspects of Truss’ comeback tour concerned with historical memory and those animated by the future prospects of her political creed. The PM-turned-polemicist has reimagined her story of political failure as a learning moment for anti-establishment agitators the world over. The grandiose title Ten Years to Save the West, of course, befits a mode of political writing somewhat worthier of a US audience than a UK one. Truss’ recent tour of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and support for Donald Trump, sans caveat, are further revealing of one particular personal-financial aim: secure a lucrative spot on the US speaker circuit.

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Cue fist-pumping in Labour’s campaign headquarters. Party apparatchiks have long-viewed the ex-PM as a political weapon, whose pronouncements can be manipulated for their own ends. Tellingly, mere hours after Truss refused to rule out another Conservative leadership bid on Monday, a press release arrived in hacks’ inboxes: “The prospect of Liz Truss returning as Tory leader will send shivers down the spine of working people”, Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth chirped.

The politics animating Labour’s response is plain: recent polling from Ipsos revealed that Truss has a net favourability rating of -60 — meaning she is viewed more unfavourably than all of her fellow Conservative prime ministers, both former and current. A vote for the Conservative Party, Labour’s logic flows, risks leaving the door open to a Liz Truss comeback. With the local elections just weeks away, the ex-PM remains a gift to Keir Starmer’s campaign machine. 

But the more interesting reaction to Truss’ recent media blitz emanates not from Labour HQ — but No 10. Take any of the ex-PM’s myriad political projects — this new book, her Growth Commission think tank or the Popular Conservatism “movement” — Rishi Sunak still refuses to repudiate his predecessor unambiguously.

The closest the PM has come to challenging Truss, the fractious first Conservative leadership contest of 2022 aside, was at the liaison committee last month when he appeared to laugh off Truss’ insistence that her premiership was thwarted by a “deep state”. But the substance of Sunak’s answer was familiar: “I think that’s probably a question for her, rather than me”.

Rishi Sunak asked about Liz Truss’ claim the ‘deep state’ ended her premiership

Truss’ new book will be replete with soundbites and quotes to which the PM would, presumably, proffer this same response. But it begs an important question: as Truss retreats further into the realm of US-style conspiracy politics, and becomes more antagonistic in turn, just how long can this approach endure? 

From the start, Sunak’s calculation has always been that attacking his predecessor would only aggravate his rebels and consume political capital that might otherwise be spent on his own priorities. In politics, Sunak recognised, counter-criticism can confer on one’s political foes undue credibility; the PM knows that Liz Truss’ backers are a small but vocal minority within the Conservative parliamentary party. Challenging Truss’ interventions would only encourage her remaining acolytes — exacerbating the criticism levelled at his government.

Moreover, Sunak’s No 10 strategists recognise that party ill-discipline can consume politics in a vicious cycle — as the spectacle of charge and counter-charge consumes Westminster’s finite oxygen. From the beginning, then — if only to mark a new departure from his predecessor administrations — Sunak sought to place himself above the embittered churn of Tory infighting. 

But how the political circumstances have (or haven’t) altered since October 2022. Despite recurrent relaunches, the Conservative Party’s position in the polls has refused to rally meaningfully under Sunak; in turn, the prime minister’s control of his party has loosened, Conservative discipline has crumbled and, crucially — given the party now sits on the cusp of the opinion poll nadir achieved under Truss — the ex-PM’s image has softened. All the while, the Conservative grassroots are hungry for ideas that might still rescue the party. This, in short, is the context in which Truss’ recent comeback tour operates.

In this way, Liz Truss’ political comeback is not merely a presentational problem for Sunak — but revealing of a deeper structural crisis. It is both a symptom and cause of his inability to restore authority in his party as an election nears. 

Truss’ comeback tour lays bare the destructive feedback loop that currently grips Conservative politics — wherein the ability of one individual to escape reprimand empowers other rebels to break rank. See also the case of Nick Fletcher, the Conservative MP for Don Valley, who endorsed Reform’s Lee Anderson to remain as the MP for Ashfield after the next election. Former home secretary Suella Braverman’s appearance as a keynote speaker at the National Conservatism conference in Brussels can also be viewed along these lines.

Ultimately, Liz Truss is but one Conservative politician who has recognised the Conservative Party is slipping out of Sunak’s grasp. She, and many others besides, are primed to pick up the pieces.

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.

Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.