You can tell a lot about a minister from their bookshelves. Some display photos of themselves with the great and the good, others favour wonky texts. As you walk into Elizabeth Truss’s seventh-floor office in the Department of Education, the first thing you see is a think-tank pamphlet: ‘The Profit Motive in Education: Continuing the Revolution’.
Knowing Truss, I half expect she put it there to provoke; a symbol of her radicalism. She grew up in a left-wing household and says, ‘My first political experience was going on a CND march, which taught me a certain political style.’
I’ve heard her nickname in the department is the human hand grenade. When I ask why, her response shows the hand grenade in action.
‘Well, there are two civil servants in this meeting,’ she says, turning to the press officers with us. ‘Maybe they can elucidate?’ One looks uncomfortable and says: ‘I’m not being interviewed!’ ‘That’s a Jeremy Paxman-style answer,’ says Truss and turns to the other, who says quietly, ‘I’ll leave it to you.’
‘Maybe,’ she says, ‘it’s because I put civil servants on the spot.’
Truss won the minister to watch at the Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year awards last week, and she talks about the problems facing the country in a more direct manner than most new ministers dare to. She attributes Britain’s failure to compete globally to the poor skills of people here. She warns that ‘the proportion of our population who don’t have basic skills is very high in comparison with other countries’. This is a ‘culture and an education problem’, she says.
Her views on this issue date back to a year she spent in Canada when she was 12. ‘The whole culture was people wanting to do well and succeed. People wanted to be the top of the class, going home and working on your homework was a good thing. While the school I was at in Leeds was the opposite.’ She complains that people in this country have an ‘ingrained attitude that destiny is defined’. She bemoans that this is a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t think that, then you’re likely to do better.’
Truss is one of only four working mothers in the government. This gives her a particular perspective on child care, one of her ministerial responsibilities alongside the curriculum. ‘When I went to Berlin,’ she says, ‘I saw that they ensure that all parents have 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. child care on site at their local primary school. That’s a good reason to move to Berlin!’
Truss wants to make child care here more like it is in Europe. ‘I favour the continental systems which give more autonomy to providers, have more incentives around high quality and well paid staff — rather than our system, which is very prescriptive at quite a micro level but has some of the lowest salaries in Europe.’
There’d be more working mothers if child care were more affordable, Truss argues: ‘Fifty per cent of mothers who are currently at home looking after their children want to go out to work and 50 per cent don’t.’ Careful to avoid the mummy wars, Truss is quick to note that either is an equally valid choice, but she’s soon back to her favourite theme. ‘Let’s help the ones who want to go out to work. If those who want to go out to work did, they’d contribute about £6 billion to the economy. There’s a big economic prize to be had.’
It is not just a numbers game for Truss. She describes helping mothers who want to return to work as a ‘social good’. She worries that when women lose their link to the world of work they end up going back to less-skilled jobs than they should. She laments ‘the way that as a country we waste talent. We could get so much more out of people which would bring them personal fulfilment and would also help our economy.’
Truss’s other great passion is maths. ‘My daughter was here in the department looking at the maths textbooks from Singapore — she just really wanted to try them out and she’s six. She’s got that thirst for knowledge unencumbered by the cynicism of adolescence.’ The message Truss takes from this is that ‘sometimes we try to make things relevant and say it has to be fun, but actually children want to know stuff about how the adult world works’. She frets that in previous curriculums, ‘too many things have been standardised and actually made boring by all being laid out in that way’.
Truss, of course, is not the first radical Tory working mother. She’s happy to call herself ‘a bit of a Thatcherite’. Strikingly, she sees today’s more socially liberal Britain as a product of Thatcherism. ‘What had happened by the mid-1990s,’ she explains, ‘was that the Tories were out of step with the social feelings of the country. So, when Tony Blair came in and introduced civil partnerships, the British people were ready for it. We hadn’t fully realised as a party the change in society that, in fact, we had unleashed.’
The conversation moves on to the Conservative party’s ‘great matter’: this country’s membership of the European Union. When I ask her what kind of relationship Britain should want with the EU, she replies immediately: ‘A looser one.’ ‘We have to think seriously about renegotiation and what we should say if we don’t get what we want,’ she adds. I take this as a coded way of signalling her support for her departmental superior Michael Gove, who has made clear that renegotiation will only succeed if Britain is prepared to say we will leave if we don’t get what we need. She confines herself, though, to an emphatic ‘I always agree with my boss.’
It is clear Truss has huge respect for Gove. She describes him as an ‘incredibly talented politician with a very strong sense of conviction’. Despite all his protestations to the contrary, Truss believes that Gove would be a good prime minister. ‘I don’t think there’s a vacancy at the moment,’ she says, ‘but I do think he would be.’
Considering Truss’s rapid rise and her forthright views, I wonder if she would fancy being prime minister herself sometime in the future. She replies, but without the usual certainty in her voice, ‘No, not particularly.’ She even concedes that her no ‘is not as emphatic as Michael Gove’s no’.
Truss sets herself high targets. Her aim is for Britain to be ‘a very successful country’. In a break with all the early Cameroon talk of general wellbeing, she stresses that ‘you can quantify it in terms of how much wealth our citizens have’. She also wants to see Britain topping the international educational league tables. If she can achieve that, then the human hand grenade will have blown away most of the obstacles to success in modern Britain.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 1 December 2012