Who is Liz Truss? Ambitious UK foreign secretary given Brexit hospital pass

Truss gains Brexit negotiator role that could define or scupper her leadership credentials

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Months into her new role as the UK's foreign secretary, Liz Truss has secured another major portfolio.

From her modest profile of international trade secretary, she was promoted after only three months to one of the great offices of state and will now also be the lead Brexit negotiator.

That latest job addition could well be a poisoned chalice, as Lord Frost, who resigned at the weekend, and his predecessors will testify. Scrapping with envoys from Brussels while managing Northern Ireland’s vociferous politicians can be tricky.

But if Ms Truss, 46, manages to renegotiate Britain’s trade deal by resolving the Northern Ireland Protocol while keeping Brexiteers and Unionists satisfied, it will be a major achievement, strengthening her already formidable position among the Conservative grass roots to the point that Number Ten could come within tantalising reach.

Liz Truss, appointed as the new foreign secretary, leaves 10 Downing Street in September this year. Getty Images

But that is on the assumption that all goes well — which is probably the calculation Boris Johnson made when adding the Brexit post to her work tray on Sunday. He is either grooming his successor or giving her enough rope to strangle her political career.

However, the prime minister and colleagues understand that there is a steely resilience about Ms Truss.

She is, those close to her say, a “very tough negotiator” and has considerable experience from striking deals as international trade secretary, and deals with Australia and Japan bear witness to that.

Ms Truss will certainly be bellicose in triggering Article 16 — the option that could lead to a trade war with the EU — and she may also have the stomach for it.

Born to a maths professor father and a teacher mother, Ms Truss was given a sound education that set her on the path to Oxford University.

Her parents were Labour inclined, but Ms Truss became president of the Liberal Democrats at university before turning to the Conservatives after graduation. She voted remain in the Brexit referendum only to later become an advocate for leave.

Clearly, she can adroitly tack the political winds. To date, she has served in the Cabinet under three challenging prime ministers while many contemporaries have fallen along the way.

Those vying for the top job will almost certainly have to fight their way past the formidable Ms Truss.

And she will not make their lives easy: those close to the foreign secretary point to inner strength combined with a highly developed political radar.

That may well see her compromise on the political collision course that Britain is currently set on with Brussels and to a lesser extent Washington.

What will not endear her to the party's Brexiteers is a retreat on Lord Frost’s rigid position in removing the European Court of Justice as arbiter in trade disputes, something seen as unacceptable to hardliners.

Liz Truss visits British troops on deployment to Estonia. Photo: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

However, that position may well have already been conceded, with a British official saying as much to European press this month only for Downing Street to deny it.

With constant missteps over Christmas parties, those denials appear to carry less weight currently. So, it might be that Ms Truss can negotiate without that restriction, resolve the Protocol — absorbing some opprobrium — and carry on.

Ms Truss has already set out her stall as a top leadership contender. In a substantial speech a week ago, she put forward her Brexit credentials, portraying the benefits of Britain as “confident, outward-looking, patriotic and positive”.

She also argued that the UK needed to “be on the front foot” because “the battle for economic influence is already in full flow”. In that respect, her meeting with Gul Co-operation Council foreign ministers on Monday shows her view that closer economic and security ties with the Gulf are key to combating hostile states.

The new Brexit role will also restore some morale to the Foreign Office after it was sidelined from the most important strategic foreign policy decision since 1945. Insiders describe it as a “monster brief” — which also includes international development — but also shows a “vote of confidence” in the minister.

It appears, too, that her position is being welcomed outside Britain, particularly with those formerly at odds with Lord Frost.

“I’ve worked well with Liz previously in agriculture and more recently in foreign affairs,” said Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister. “I look forward to working with her now on Brexit. Much work ahead, but progress is achievable in the new year.”

If 2022 continues Mr Johnson's downwards spiral, and if Ms Truss successfully navigates the perilous waters ahead, a photo showing her riding in a tank may not be the only comparison with her political idol, Margaret Thatcher: she could become Britain’s third woman prime minister.

Updated: December 20, 2021, 4:27 PM