Liz Truss grew up in Yorkshire and wants Conservative members to know about it, but her heavy regional banter at a hustings in Leeds played better in the all-Tory audience than her childhood tales have done with the public.
It could be a story that plays out across Britain, as polls show Tory members poised to make Ms Truss the next prime minister, even as her rival Rishi Sunak argues that she lacks appeal to the country at large.
Campaigning in Leeds, Ms Truss laid it on thick: she went to school (and bought her first Whitney Houston record) nearby, she can swap tales about local buses, she embodies Yorkshire values of grit and straight-talking, and she wants to channel the spirit of combative former Leeds United manager Don Revie.
Watching the hustings only metres from the Elland Road football ground, the Tory members certainly enjoyed it, with pantomime boos ringing out at the mention of rival counties as Ms Truss engaged in some friendly regional sparring.
But her homecoming was clouded by a potshot she took at her old school in a speech in London on July 14, when she said the talents of classmates had “gone to waste” because of poor education — a remark that caused offence back in Leeds.
“She complained about the standard of education there, and yet it was good enough for her to go on to Oxford,” said Chris Nickson, who writes novels set in Leeds and went to Roundhay School about a decade before Ms Truss.
“Roundhay itself is a very affluent area. You’re looking at mostly Edwardian villas, detached houses, very upmarket semis, wide, leafy streets. It’s hardly the inner city that Liz Truss painted it to be.”
In Leeds, Ms Truss upgraded her description of the school to an “average comprehensive” and said its problems were down to Labour councillors rather than Conservative ministers who, as many have noted, were in power at the time.
Her party, in power since 2010, also stands accused of neglecting Leeds and the north of England, despite the flagship promise of departing Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “level-up” Britain’s London-centric economy.
“It’s a massive city and there are some areas of extreme deprivation within it,” said author Stu Hennigan, whose recent book about poverty in Leeds describes housing conditions he said were “almost Dickensian”.
Mr Hennigan handed out food parcels in deprived areas during lockdown and was moved to document his experiences in his book Ghost Signs, published by Bluemoose Books, which he compared to George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier as an unflinching account of modern poverty.
“You’d walk down the street and half of the houses literally look like they’re falling down. You think this street is derelict, people can’t possibly live here, and yet they do,” Mr Hennigan said.
“You see it, but you don’t feel it in the same way as when I was literally standing on people’s doorsteps, and you can see past them into their house, and there are no carpets, there’s mould on the walls, the living room ceiling’s falling down, there’s not a single pane of intact glass in the entire building and you’ve got a woman with a 6-month-old baby thanking you for the food and saying ‘do you have any nappies in the van?’”
Ms Truss’s proposals to level-up “in a Conservative way” include pushing for a new mass transit system in Leeds, freeing it from the ignominy of being one of the biggest cities in Europe with no trams or metro to speak of.
She wants to improve rail links to Manchester and Liverpool but would not reinstate a direct high-speed line to London that was planned for construction but scrapped last year, prompting cries of betrayal from some Leeds MPs.
Some Tory members were dissatisfied with the pace of reform and Mr Nickson said he would like the candidates to say when levelling-up will become a reality because “nobody in Leeds has seen it yet”.
Despite the local misgivings, Ms Truss came away from Leeds with a valuable endorsement as Jake Berry, a Conservative MP and prominent supporter of the levelling-up agenda, said he was backing Ms Truss.
“I’m backing Liz because she’s the person with energy to bring action and delivery to make sure that we level-up our United Kingdom,” Mr Berry said.
Ms Truss, the Foreign Secretary, certainly seemed to inspire more enthusiasm among the hustings audience, which broke into applause five times during her opening speech after staying politely quiet for Mr Sunak.
It was not that Mr Sunak did not try. He talked up his own local links, as an MP in more affluent North Yorkshire who is backed by popular Yorkshire Tory William Hague, and even called himself the “most northern chancellor in decades”.
He brought another Yorkshire ally, former Brexit minister David Davis, to warm up the crowd and tell them Mr Sunak was “a man of great honesty and integrity, great intellect, and real Conservative principles”.
But there was a feeling that Mr Sunak failed to throw enough red meat to Conservative members, some of whom were unhappy that he resigned from Boris Johnson’s Cabinet and helped to trigger his downfall.
One Tory member, a Johnson loyalist called Matthew, drew some appreciation in the crowd by standing up at the hustings and telling Mr Sunak: “You’ve stabbed him in the back.”
Mr Sunak politely replied that he had stuck to his principles by differing with Mr Johnson on economic policy, but Ms Truss was quicker to defend a departing prime minister she said had done “a fantastic job”.
Although Ms Truss only scraped into the final run-off by a handful of votes among MPs, polls suggest she is more popular than Mr Sunak among party membership and is the favourite to become prime minister in early September.
She deflected questions about her shape-shifting views — as a former Liberal Democrat who once wanted to abolish the monarchy — by saying she had seen the error of her teenage ways.
But Mr Nickson said he would like to ask her: “If you’re willing to lie about your education and the city where you spend time, what other larger issues are you willing to lie about?”
And Mr Hennigan said he had little hope that either Ms Truss or Mr Sunak would bring the change that his experiences of Leeds made him certain are needed.
“When you consider that the UK has got the fifth or sixth-richest economy in the world on paper, people shouldn’t be living in these kind of conditions now,” he said.
“You have the ridiculous situation now where people are concerned about the cost of living and it’s a really current thing, and yet politicians are complaining about NHS staff, railway workers asking for a pay rise. The priority of businesses is lining the pockets of the shareholders. Truss, Sunak, any of the other ones, that’s what they’re interested in safeguarding.”