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Truss vs. Sunak leadership race divides UK's Tories

Barbara Wesel Kommentarbild App *PROVISORISCH*
Barbara Wesel
July 22, 2022

The battle between Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former Chancellor Rishi Sunak to succeed Prime Minister Boris Johnson reveals the deep divide in Britain's Conservative Party, writes DW's Barbara Wesel.

Combination photo of foreign minister Liz Truss and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak
Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are going head-to-head in the race to become the UK's next prime ministerImage: Daniel Leal/Tolga Akmen/Getty Images

British Parliament has just entered its summer recess as the bitter fight to succeed Prime Minister Boris Johnson enters its final round.

The winner will chosen by the Conservative Party's registered members, who are believed to number around 160,000. They aren't exactly representative of contemporary Britain — most are white men aged over 65 who live in the prosperous south of England.

The two candidates, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, have just a few weeks to convince the members to vote for them, with the winner due to be announced on September 5.

What the membership wants is a true-blue Conservative who will do everything differently to Johnson in terms of telling the truth and abiding by the law.

On the other hand, they also want a hard Brexiteer who will lower taxes and is able to win an election — like Johnson, who in 2019 elections led the Conservatives to a large majority.

The gloves are off and the fight has already seen intrigues and revelations. Anything goes in this battle between the two political opponents from the same camp.

Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak raises his hands as he delivers a speech
Rishi Sunak, seen here at the Tory 2021 Party Conference, is vastly different from Prime Minister Boris JohnsonImage: Toby Melville/REUTERS

Rishi Sunak: The millionaire who deposed the king

It was the resignation of Rishi Sunak as chancellor of the exchequer in early July that triggered the disintegration of Johnson's Cabinet and ended up forcing him to step down.

Now, though, this is exactly what is dragging Sunak down: The man who kills the king is seldom thanked for it.

The sentimental farewell to Johnson in the House of Commons this week showed that, despite the never-ending scandals, Tories still have a soft spot for the man with the shaggy blonde hair, extravagant optimism and incendiary speeches.

By contrast, 42-year-old Rishi Sunak, with his neatly coiffed hair, comes across as a more traditional, responsible sort of politician.

The son of a well-to-do family with Indian roots, he has had his eye on the top job for some time. His "Ready4Rishi" campaign was ready to go before the battle for the succession even began, and almost seems too professional, too slickly produced.

Sunak earned his fortune as a hedge fund manager and is married to the daughter of an Indian billionaire. For this family, money isn't really an issue.

The Tories are certainly in favor of riches. But they do expect of their politicians at least some pretense at modesty and some sense of how ordinary people live. In this respect, Rishi Sunak all too often blunders.

Most recently this was seen on a visit to a building site where he wore Italian shoes worth upwards of €500 ($510). On another occasion, while promoting the government's reduction in fuel duty with a photo shoot at a gas station, he was pictured filling the tank of a small car. But it turned out the car wasn't actually his. Rather, he had borrowed it from a supermarket worker.

The Oxford University graduate's attempts to present himself as a man of the people, one who understands how hard inflation and rising energy costs are hitting British families, often backfire. It is also not exactly helpful that, like many of the super-rich, his wife paid only minimal taxes in the UK.

Rishi Sunak, wearing a suits, smiles as he stands next to his wife Akshata Murthy
As chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak defended the tax reductions of his wife Akshata Murthy (pictured above)Image: Ian West/empics/picture alliance

His supporters, however, praise Rishi Sunak's serious economic policies. Right now, he wants to stabilize the national debt and is refusing to promise any tax cuts that have not been offset.

Twelve years of Tory government have brought about deep cuts in public spending and left the country with an underfunded public health service. It is hard to know where further savings could be made. On top of this, public sector workers are due a pay rise and inflation is expected to hit 11%.

For all these reasons, Sunak is urging caution. He is the candidate for Tories who like their politicians to be serious, even a little boring — that is, the polar opposite of showman Boris Johnson.

Liz Truss: The Conservative for the nostalgic

Unlike Sunak, Foreign Minister Liz Truss stuck it out in the Cabinet at Johnson's side right to the bitter end.

Johnson's supporters in the Tory party appreciate that she didn't betray him and this is currently giving the 46-year-old Truss a clear lead in the party's internal opinion polls.

She too has been signaling her leadership ambitions for quite some time. For months now, Britons have been entertained by her professionally styled PR shoots: Liz Truss in a fur hat on Red Square in Moscow or standing atop a tank in full battle dress. These visual nods to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher are a bit too much, even for loyal Conservatives.

Liz Truss wears a black blazer and white blouse with a white bow in the front
Liz Truss wears similar outfits to former Prime Minister Margret Thatcher, right down to the blouse with a bow tied at the frontImage: Avalon/Photoshot/picture alliance

Truss is pulling out all stops to boost her credibility with grassroots party members. She is promising tax cuts of 30 billion pounds (€35 billion, $35.8 billion) claiming that because the cuts will promote economic growth, they will finance themselves — a proposal that is very much in line with Tory doctrine.

The Conservatives consider themselves the party of low taxes and the opponents of state intervention. For those who long to return to the party ideology of the Thatcher era, Liz Truss is a dream come true. She is the candidate for nostalgic Tories.

But there is a flip side to Truss's careful positioning as a model Conservative. She is not, in fact, a dyed-in-the-wool Tory; at university, she was a prominent and active member of the Liberal Democrats. Worse still: In the battle for Brexit, she campaigned for Britain to remain in the European Union. She now presents herself as a particularly rabid Brexiteer, describing her former political position as a mistake — because in today's Conservative Party, only the most hardline Brexiteers stand a chance.

Liz Truss chairs a call with her G7 counterparts
Liz Truss takes great care with her appearances — in this case down to the G7 logo on the coffee cupImage: Simon Dawson/Avalon/Photoshot/picture alliance

Her detractors, however, have cast doubt on her competence. They point, for example, to her oddly awkward speech at the 2014 party conference where she announced that she would be "opening up new pork markets" on an upcoming trip to China and told Britons it was a "disgrace" that they ate so much imported cheese. The clip was a massive comedy hit.

The list of her blunders is long. When war broke out in Ukraine, Truss encouraged British volunteers to go there and fight for democracy, apparently unaware as the British foreign minister that it would be against the law. She was soon forced to backtrack after other Conservative ministers raised objections.

People who have worked with Truss are said to refer to her behind closed doors as "the human hand grenade". Her opponents say the name came about because wherever she shows up, chaos ensues. Her supporters say the name refers to Truss being as powerful and effective as a missile.

Conservative Party members will soon be asked to decide which of these is the correct interpretation.

This opinion was originally written in German.