Is there any reason for us to think that Truss, rather than Johnson, pulling the levers of power will improve our circumstances? Her record suggests the opposite. Sorry
“This means so much to so many women across the world,” crowed Conservative MP Vicky Ford on Monday
“This means so much to so many women across the world,” crowed Conservative MP Vicky Ford on Monday, at the announcement that Britain’s next PM would indeed be another woman – Liz Truss. The minister for Africa believes that Truss entering Downing Street marks a welcome shift for women’s prospects at home and globally, and perhaps in one way she is right about that.
I can’t pretend I’m not pleased to see the back of notorious philanderer Boris Johnson, a man who has described women as “totty”, attacked single mothers and thought it was acceptable to label his colleague David Cameron a “girly swot”. The Labour party should be concerned about how this looks too. Three female prime ministers to not a single female leader, even in opposition. Why does the Labour membership keep electing men? It’s a problem that needs looking at with some honesty.
But should the rest of us follow Ford’s lead? Right now women have never been more acutely in need of strong leadership serving their interests. We earn less than men, are hit hardest by the housing crisis and rising cost of living, and live in a state of hypervigilance knowing only too well that Britain is not policed in our interests. Is there any reason for us to think that Truss, rather than Johnson, pulling the levers of power will improve our circumstances? Her record suggests the opposite. Sorry.
During her leadership campaign a point of attack from both Rishi Sunak, her opposite contender for the title, and beyond was that she has no specific defining values; she has changed her political camouflage so many times that nobody knows what she stands for apart from an appetite to be close to power. (Not much change from Boris there.) Once a Liberal Democrat, then a smallish-c conservative, a centrist Remainer, she since has flourished as a Brexit-loving free marketeer who is about to hand energy bosses a huge great government-backed loan that each of us will be forced to repay when the sunny uplands finally appear upon the horizon. Her values are malleable.
Under this government, women are feeling the harshest effects of the post-pandemic, post-Brexit economic crunch. They are more likely to be earning less, more likely to be paying a higher percentage of their income on housing costs, more likely to be claiming benefits for themselves and their dependents, and more likely to be poor. On each of these measures, Truss has played an active role in creating the economic climate women are now suffering in.
She has consistently voted against lifting benefits in line with inflation and favour of reducing benefit payments overall. She also voted with the government in favour of welfare reform, including the capping of certain payments via the “bedroom tax” and the two-child support limit.
Her answer to the cost of living crisis lies in deep tax cuts, but these would largely benefit well off men at the expense of poorer women, particularly via a national insurance cut. Analysis from the Women’s Budget Group found that a NI cut would save women £237 a year on average and men £263. The group argues that the policy would leave a huge gap in health and social care budgets – sectors which are overwhelmingly staffed by women, and also more likely to be used by them as citizens too. The statement from the group on the PM’s appointment described women as the “shock absorbers of poverty” but warns “their financial resilience has been eroded by a decade of benefit and public sector cuts…. [meaning] that women are ill-equipped to cope with the current cost of living crisis. We need to see recognition of this from Truss.”
Not likely, warn her colleagues in Westminster. Alongside her role as foriegn secretary, Truss also previously held the post of equalities minister and her record in office was poor. A damning analysis of her tenure by the cross-party Women and Equalities Committees Committee warned that during her leadership on the brief Britain risked “regression on equal rights after decades of progress”. Caroline Nokes, the chair of the committee, claimed that Truss treated the important and essential work of progress towards sex equality as a mere “side hustle”. The committee – which she failed attend hearings in person – described a “lack of willingness to invest energy in creating change” under her ministerial oversight.
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It was during her period in office that rape conviction rates hit a historic low and are still dropping. Policing the rights of women and girls is a priority for voters in the wake of the tragedy of Sarah Everard’s rape and murder at the hands of a serving police officer, and the revelations over multiple cases of sexist and misogynistic behaviour from male officers that followed. Experts in crime and policing say her statements over law and order are “meaningless”.
Her record is unconvincing, but that is not to say her status as the third female PM is irrelevant. She knows it marks the Conservatives out against the opposition. She will also seek to make a feature and a virtue of her cabinet appointments leaving no white man in the four great offices of state – progress for Britain in representation, if not in policy. She has also sought to use her sex in a tentative entry into the policy debate over trans rights, stating (in a notably vague way) that she knows “a woman is a woman”.
Women hoping that a female leader will see a change in their prospects or a radical overhaul of Conservative policy in their favour, however, are likely to be disappointed.