London: Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have fought hard to be seen as the true heir to Margaret Thatcher in their battle to become the next UK prime minister.
After a gruelling nationwide tour, a dozen hustings and three televised debates, Truss appears poised to take over as the UK’s next prime minister heading into the close of voting by Conservative party members on Friday.
The result of the summer-long campaign pitting the foreign secretary against former chancellor Rishi Sunak will be announced on Monday, before Prime Minister Boris Johnson formally tenders his resignation to Queen Elizabeth II the next day.
Truss enjoys overwhelming support over Sunak in polling of the members.
The spectre of the Conservative party icon has loomed large over the contest, despite her having been ousted from power more than 30 years ago and her death in 2013.
Truss’ claim to Thatcher’s legacy rests on her commitment to massive tax cuts and attacks on the unions at a time of widespread industrial action.
Sunak on the other hand says his belief in fiscal prudence and endorsement from Thatcher’s finance minister makes him a more faithful torchbearer for the woman who was prime minister from 1979 to 1990.
Thatcher’s legend was built on crushing the unions in order to implement her free market economic policies, winning the 1982 Falklands War against Argentina and three general election victories.
Conservative party members ranked Thatcher as their second-most respected leader with 93 per cent support, just behind Winston Churchill, according to a 2019 YouGov poll.
Around 56 per cent of members called themselves “Thatcherite” — more than any other label.
For Tim Bale, a political scientist at Queen Mary University of London, the Tory party’s increasing anti-European stance reinforces the aura of the “Iron Lady” who stood up to Brussels and in 1979 demanded a rebate on British contributions.
Truss, 46, who grew up in Leeds, northern England, worked for 10 years in the energy and telecommunications sectors before entering politics.
She is married to an accountant and has two daughters.
Her political journey began at the prestigious University of Oxford, where she graduated in politics, philosophy and economics.
But at Oxford, she was an active member of the Liberal Democrat party.
By her own admission, her switch to the Conservatives shocked her left-wing maths professor father and nuclear disarmament campaigner mother, whom she accompanied to demonstrations as a child.
“I am a low-tax Conservative”, she told the Telegraph in May. “The way we’re going to weather the storm is through economic growth, through growing the economy,” she noted of the country’s current economic woes.
She acquired key diplomatic skills as London forged trade deals beyond the European Union, notably with Australia, Japan and Norway.
Truss twice failed in bids to become an MP before finally succeeding in 2010, when she was elected as representative for the east England constituency of South West Norfolk, four years after being voted in as a local councillor in southeast London. She was promoted to government in 2012, becoming a minister in the education department, and has since held a series of portfolios.
She was environment minister from 2014 to 2016, where she was mocked for a speech in which she vaunted British cheese, saying it was a “disgrace” how much the country imported.
She then became the first female justice minister before taking on the role of chief secretary to the Treasury.
“There’s a lot of nostalgia for the way that she changed the country. She ground down the trade unions. She cut taxes for the wealthy. She increased home ownership,” he told AFP.
Beneath the nostalgia, lie practical issues of day to day governance. If Truss beats Rishi Sunak in an election to lead the ruling Conservative Party and becomes prime minister, she will face a peculiar strife.
Surging wholesale gas prices, driven higher by the Ukraine war, are hitting countries across Europe but Britain is particularly dependent on gas for electricity and heating, pushing its inflation rate above all other major economies.
Growth is stalling and workers smarting from years of non-existent real wage growth — from train drivers to barristers to nurses — are spoiling for a fight for higher salaries to compensate for inflation running at 10%.
Truss has to tackle all of that as she becomes leader of the ruling party on Monday — as is widely expected. It is also true that she’ll need all the grit and guile of the Iron Lady as she walks into a scene straight out of the 1980s: a looming recession, industrial unrest and urban decay.
Shapka and tank
Truss, noted for her use of social media, has also been snapped in photographs strikingly similar to Thatcher’s most iconic images.
She posed in a shapka on a visit to Moscow, on the turret of a tank in Estonia, and sported a white blouse with a large bow, as worn by Thatcher, during one of the leadership debates.
But she said of the comparisons: “I haven’t invited them; the media constantly go on about it.
“Frankly, every woman in politics gets compared to Theresa May or Margaret Thatcher because there haven’t been as many women leaders as men leaders.”
In an effort to convince the grass roots members that he wasn’t on the party’s left, Sunak made a pilgrimage to Thatcher’s hometown of Grantham in the east of England, at the end of July.
He also used the Daily Telegraph, the Conservatives’ daily newspaper of choice, to present himself as a “Thatcherite” who would implement a “radical set of Thatcherite reforms that will unleash growth”.
His allies, as well as former ministers of the late leader, have made numerous interventions to present his programme of reducing inflation before announcing tax cuts as being more faithful to Thatcher’s ideology.
Thatcher “said the things that may have been difficult to hear,” Sunak insisted on the BBC.
“And that’s the standard that I hold myself to, I don’t want to make promises that I can’t keep”.