How Liz Truss went from also-ran to frontrunner in Tory leadership race

The Howard family has been entwined with British power since before the days of Elizabeth I, so it was little surprise that Lord Greville Howard’s London townhouse was the base for the campaign to install Liz Truss as prime minister.

But something was not right at Howard’s Georgian home on Lord North Street, near the Palace of Westminster, on Friday last week. The foreign secretary was preparing for a crucial first television debate of the contest to succeed Boris Johnson as Tory leader, but seemed unable to focus.

“They were firing questions at her but she kept blanking out,” said one witness. “She was knackered.” Truss had returned abruptly from a G20 meeting in Indonesia earlier in the week after Johnson quit as Conservative leader, and the strain was telling.

While her rivals were preparing their campaigns, Truss was rushing back to London after a 40-hour round trip to Bali; she was struggling to catch up. Her team, readying their candidate for the Channel 4 TV debate, feared the worst. “We knew it would not go well,” said one.

And so it transpired. Truss was rated by viewers as the worst of the five Tory leadership contenders; she appeared wan, wooden. Trailing Rishi Sunak, the ex-chancellor, and Penny Mordaunt, trade minister, in terms of support among Tory MPs, her candidature was in trouble.

A week later, a revitalised Truss is in the final two in the race to succeed Johnson, locked in a head-to-head fight with Sunak. According to polls of Conservative party members — who make the final choice — and the bookmakers, she is favourite to become Britain’s next premier.

The day after the Channel 4 debacle, Truss retreated with her family to Chevening, the country retreat of the foreign secretary. There she recharged her batteries and decided to come out fighting in the next debate just 24 hours later on ITV, calculating she had nothing to lose.

In a series of bruising skirmishes with Sunak, Truss accused the ex-chancellor of pushing Britain towards recession with a series of tax rises, and contrasted her state education in Leeds with his expensive schooling at Winchester.

“It was never going to be Marquess of Queensberry rules,” said one Truss supporter. The exchanges were vicious.

One minister backing Truss said: “In the first debate she thought it wasn’t right for the candidates to tear strips off each other — in the second debate we shifted tactics. She only had to do it once.”

Having put some fight back into her campaign, Truss was now starting to reel in Mordaunt in the series of five knockout ballots by Tory MPs. In the early rounds, Mordaunt had the momentum, but Truss gradually closed the gap.

The foreign secretary was helped by a series of attacks on the trade minister, led by Mordaunt’s former colleague Lord David Frost. The former Brexit minister, previously Mordaunt’s boss in the Cabinet Office, said he had “grave reservations” about her abilities.

Frost, a respected voice among Eurosceptic Tory MPs, came out for Truss. “We knew he was going to do the attack on Penny,” said one Truss ally. “It was a two-footed tackle. It undermined her confidence and — along with the ITV debate — marked a turning point.”

Truss secured her place in the final shortlist of two on Wednesday with 113 votes compared with 105 for Mordaunt; in the sun-drenched cobbled courtyard next to Big Ben the foreign secretary’s supporters hugged each other in relief. Thérèse Coffey, work and pensions secretary, led the high fives.

If Truss was relieved to make the final shortlist, so too was Sunak, who won the MPs’ fifth ballot with 137 votes. Only three months ago, he was assumed to be finished, after details emerged that his wife enjoyed tax perks through her non domicile status and that he retained a US green card, even after becoming chancellor.

While the first TV debate was an ordeal for Truss, it confirmed to many Tory MPs that Sunak cut an impressive figure, insisting he would not indulge the “fantasy economics” of his rivals, who wanted to cut taxes in the midst of an inflationary crisis.

“The debates were crucial for Rishi,” said one supporter. “People could see him dealing with big issues — they could imagine him in a general election debate against [Labour leader] Keir Starmer.”

Sunak, who had appeared nervous at his campaign launch a few days earlier, seemed more relaxed in the TV debates, for which he prepared with a Twix bar, a can of Sprite and a soundtrack from the retro pop radio station Heart Noughties.

The former chancellor has, in the past, looked brittle outside his economics comfort zone. His supporters said he has benefited from being seen as “the outsider, the insurgent”, who is now trying to overhaul Truss in the fight for the hearts and minds of Tory members.

Sunak’s self-discipline has impressed colleagues. He has told allies he has almost kicked his addiction to full-strength Coca-Cola — limiting himself to just one can a week on a Saturday night — and his clothes appear to be shrink-wrapped to his slight physique.

But having got on to the final shortlist, the fight is just beginning. “We’ve got two weeks to win this,” said one Tory MP backing Sunak, admitting that the newly-combative Truss will be a formidable opponent in the next round of TV debates, starting with a BBC event on Monday.

He added: “We’ve got to land our policy announcements, roll out some more endorsements from MPs and get party members to think about the next election — at the moment they still think it’s some way off.”

At various points in the last three months, it seemed possible that neither Truss nor Sunak would get this far. Now Number 10 is within the reach of both.

The next two weeks are crucial; ballot papers are sent out to about 150,000 Tory members in the first week of August and many will be filled in and returned immediately. A result will be announced on September 5.