I suspect Rishi Sunak will watch back last night’s BBC Tory leadership debate with some regret. His frequent interruptions of Liz Truss did him no favours — not simply because it came across at points as impolite, but because on plenty of occasions he would have been better off letting her answer his questions (or not answer his questions, as it was apparent on things like interest rates that she had not come equipped with answers).
But Truss is at risk of making Sunak’s mistakes her mistakes. In response to Sunak’s debating tactics, Team Truss is going hard on the misogyny angle. Sunak’s performance is being explained in heavily gendered terms by Truss’s allies. A spokesman for Truss released an extraordinary quote saying that ‘Rishi Sunak has tonight proven he is not fit for office. His aggressive mansplaining and shouty private school behaviour is desperate, unbecoming and is a gift to Labour’.
This does not sound like Liz Truss. The foreign secretary has long pushed back on victimhood politics. As women and equalities minister, Truss has had to downplay some of her opinions over the past few years, but privately she is thought to be opposed to policies like gender wage gap reporting, which create a (very often misleading) narrative of discrimination. Publicly she hinted at this in her ‘Fight For Fairness’ speech in December 2020, noting that ‘there is a deeper wage gap between London and the regions than between men and women.’
Truss described herself as a ‘Destiny’s Child feminist’ in 2019 — ‘I believe that women should be independent’ — taking direct aim at Labour for playing the woman-card so frequently. ‘The Labour party likes to paint women as victims,’ like they ‘need special help and special treatment.’ She noted this view had done Labour no favours in helping women secure the top jobs in the party.
“I would describe myself as a Destiny’s Child feminist” says International Trade Secretary Liz Truss, “I believe that women should be independent”
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) October 2, 2019
Truss’s refreshing emphasis on women and their accomplishments — rather than what’s holding them back — is one of many aspects of her politics that makes her appealing to the Tory base. So it’s strange to see her team putting out statements so off-brand. Unless Truss has pulled a major u-turn on gender politics, it’s hard to believe she agrees with the sentiment of her spokesman. Then again, it’s not the only comment that didn’t gel with Brand Truss last night: she struggled to condemn comments about Sunak’s wealth and personal success during the debate, which were made by one of her more high-profile backers, Nadine Dorries.
Truss is Foreign Secretary and is now in the final two in the contest for the country’s top job. She is currently the favourite in the polls to become Prime Minister. Assuming she doesn’t want to craft the narrative that she is some kind of victim, she’ll need to crack down on her own campaign, and soon. Tory grassroots supporters have come to know and admire Truss for pushing back on the type of comments about gender such as those that did the rounds last night. They are also likely to be baffled by the change in tune taken by her campaign.
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