Liz Truss during her first PMQs this week. / AFP

Apples and oranges

At a glance, Liz Truss and Isabel Día Ayuso seemed to be cut from the same cloth. But is that really the case?

Mark Nayler
MARK NAYLER

Charisma-free Liz Truss became the UK's new prime minister this Monday, after narrowly winning a contest to replace Conservative leader Boris Johnson. As the one-time minister for environment, food and rural affairs settles into her new job, she could do worse than look to Madrid premier Isabel Ayuso for inspiration, Spain's most prominent conservative politician and the country's only real voice of opposition.

It's hard to know what Truss really stands for, apart from a furious objection to imported apples and cheese (consult YouTube for cringey clips of the hilarious speech she gave to the 2014 Conservative conference). To take the most illustrative example: Truss supported Remain in the run up to the 2016 referendum yet has since become known as a hardcore Brexiter. In her clunking acceptance address on Monday, the former Lord Chancellor and foreign secretary promised to "govern as a Conservative". Was that a statement of the obvious or a pledge of great ideological import?

Ayuso, by contrast, stands for a clearly defined set of centre-right principles. She is not afraid of sticking to them in difficult situations, as she proved during the pandemic by criticising lockdowns when no other politician (not even the leader of her own party) had the courage to do so.

As soon as control was handed back to regional governments, Ayuso refused to shut down the capital, saying that further quarantines would be disastrous for the country's economic powerhouse. Sticking to this deeply unpopular position, in defiance of the central government and a prevailing pro-lockdown orthodoxy, took guts and paid off. In May this year, Ayuso was rewarded with a decisive victory in the Madrid elections, in large part due to her lonely defence of libertarianism throughout the pandemic.

When it comes to economics in general, both Truss and Ayuso take classic conservative stances: both are pro-market and support low (or lower) taxes for individuals and companies. Here, though, Truss could learn from what Ayuso hasn't done - deliver on her 2019 promise to give residents of Madrid "biggest tax cuts in history". Although from the same ideological playbook, Truss's stated aims are less ambitious: she has pledged not to introduce new taxes, not to raise corporation tax and not to impose windfall levvies.

There are probably some things you can't teach a 47-year-old politician if he or she doesn't already have them: rhetorical style, gravitas behind a podium and an aura of being comfortable in his or her own skin. Although lacking those qualities, Truss has an opportunity to do in the UK what Ayuso does in Spain: stand out from the rest of the political class by defending fundamental centre-right principles. Or maybe, despite their similarities, these two female conservatives are just too different. Perhaps I'm comparing apples and oranges.