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by JOSEPH WATTS, Political editor
Thursday, September 6, 2012
It is hard being a political hopeful on the morning of reshuffle day; knowing the next phone call, a single phone call, may make or undo years of hard work.
Indeed, a parliamentary colleague of South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss suggested she was so nervous on Tuesday morning that she was running around “like a rabbit on crack”.
It is understandable. Ms Truss’ journey to her ministerial office has been not only long, as most of them are, but also winding and with unexpected twists.
After all, who would have thought the daughter of a woman who was a vociferous campaigner with the anti-nuclear CND, and a man who was “to the left of Labour”, as she put it, could end up as a Tory minister in a government which has apparently swung to the political right.
“My mother would always take me to demonstrations and to peace camps too; that’s where you go and set up your tent next to a nuclear weapons base and stand there protesting at the trucks that drive in and out,” she said.
“I actually still quite like camping. Not next to nuclear bases though.”
But while their loyalties may have ultimately turned out different, it was because her parents spoke and debated with her on ideas that she gained an intrinsic interest in the political arena.
A person’s politics can be defined in the problems they see with society, the vision they have of how things should be and the route they want to map out to get there.
From the very start Ms Truss saw the problems; in particular at her comprehensive school in Leeds where she moved with her parents at the age of 10. “There were children there that were talented but were not being pushed to succeed,” she said.
“It is down to students to motivate themselves to an extent. But there were people there that could have done better, but the school did not seem to have that aim, to push them.
“It was the kind of place where it was cool not to work hard and not to try. When I went to Oxford there were people there that were not better then the best-performing people at my school, but who had been pushed.
“I found that very frustrating,” said the MP, who was named minister for early years education in David Cameron’s first reshuffle this week.
She knew she held different views from her parents, but coming from the political background she did it seems not to have occurred to her that she might be a Tory. That being the case, she joined the Liberal Democrats.
But it was when she went to Merton College Oxford, founded in 1264 but only accepting women from 1980, that she was exposed to a broader range of people from different political backgrounds.
“I was a member of the Liberal Democrats in Leeds because I suppose a lot of my teachers were left-wing and my parents were on the left, and the Lib Dems was the acceptable alternative, as opposed to being a Tory,” she said. “But the more people I met who were Conservative the more I realised that my views were actually Conservative as well, I just hadn’t known it before.”
It is a telling point. In politics young people sometimes join a party not having a full understanding of things, their views then develop in line with it as they become attached and rise thorough its hierarchy.
But before she was a ‘Tory starlet’, Ms Truss was just a person who naturally held strong views. Yes, the views led her to the Conservatives, but the views and not the party came first.
It is something to remember for those people that adhere to the common view of the Norfolk MP; that above all else she is ambitious. That is the word that always comes up; “perhaps even too ambitious,” one senior Labour figure commented after her promotion. For some, however, ambition is a selfish, negative thing, a desire to rise up through the party regardless of one’s views. But views-first Ms Truss does not adhere to that description of the word.
“Ambition is a good thing. I am an ambitious person, but I’m ambitious for Norfolk, I’m ambitious for the country, I want it to do really well,” she explains. “I was so proud of the Olympics, of the country when it came together and we were competing against these enormous nations. I want us to do well.”
After leaving Oxford she worked for a period at Shell and then also at Cable and Wireless in a range of different roles which saw her do everything from economics and accountancy to driving around garages looking at mechanical lubricants.
She also had a spell at a think-tank and was then married in 2000, a year before she stood for Parliament in a safe Labour Yorkshire constituency. She stood again in 2005, this time in a marginal seat but again did not win. Her two daughters were then born in 2006 and 2008 and a year later she finally scored the seat she would eventually win come 2010, but not without controversy.
Some members of her constituency association proposed a motion to deselect her on the grounds that they had not known about an extra-marital affair that had taken place, even though it had been reported in the press previously.
“It was difficult period. But I very much enjoy living in Norfolk, I love working for the constituency and I very much hope to be reselected for the next general election,” she said.
The incident did little to change the view that she was a politician on the up, once she got to Westminster. The word “tipped” often appears in the same sentence as her name in news stories.
She went on: “I haven’t felt pressure to be promoted. I have found the last two years doing my job very fulfilling and interesting. In modern politics you can actually have a very strong influence from the backbenches; every job is what you make of it.
“I’m absolutely delighted to have this new job, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t extremely pleased to pursue the work I was doing before.”
The ministerial group at the Department for Education was branded “the dream team” by one commentator this week. Ms Truss joins Tory high-flyer Michael Gove and respected Lib Dem David Laws.
Her goals are “to make sure child care is high quality, affordable and available for all families”, she also wants to improve school results and to make sure we have “a curriculum that matches the best in the world”.
There are those who might say that all sounds a little ambitious. But then again, they are not an education minister.
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