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August 10, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:12am

Diversity and ‘Trussonomics’: What US media say about the Tory leadership contest

By Jacob Milikan and Bron Maher

Sometimes it’s nice to get a second opinion or seven.

There have been plenty of round-ups – at Press Gazette and elsewhere – of what the British media are saying about the Conservative Party leadership race and its final pair Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss.

Thinking it would be interesting to get an outsider’s perspective, Press Gazette has taken a look at what the US media is saying about the effort to find out next leader.

We found that there are certain aspects of the race that are of particular interest to the American press: not least, er, race.

The lack of white men, Truss’ economic plan, the indulgence of culture war impulses and the prospect of a Boris Johnson comeback were all themes that appeared repeatedly.

All American spellings in quotes below have been preserved for authenticity.

‘No white men left standing’

The most common theme in US coverage of the contest has been surprise at the lack of white men running.

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“In the contest to find a new British prime minister, there are no white men left standing,” the Wall Street Journal wrote last month.

“For years, Britain’s Conservative Party was seen mainly as the realm of white men from elite backgrounds,” The New York Times reported early in July, before the contest was whittled down to just Sunak and Truss. “But the contenders to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister reflect the growing diversity at the top of the party’s ranks.”

The Los Angeles Times observed that, “Unlike in the U.S., where Democrats are better known for their diverse politicians and historic firsts with race and gender — President Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris among them — the race in Britain has cemented the Conservative Party as the one of diversity, at least at its highest levels if not its general membership.”

The WSJ commended the Conservatives, describing the mix of candidates as demonstrative of “one of the Conservative Party’s great strengths: its willingness to adapt to win elections… Officials trace the current mix of candidates back to the early 2000s, when Conservative leaders realized their lawmakers were too male and white to appeal to more liberal voters. Without diversity, its electoral future looked bleak.”

But other reports were more sceptical. 

“On paper, the nearly dozen candidates vying to replace Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader and prime minister are a kaleidoscopic tribute to Britain’s rich diversity,” a different New York Times story said.

“In terms of policy proposals, however, the mosaic they create is resolutely monochromatic.”

The Atlantic echoed that argument, saying: “Cameron’s diversity from above [through the so-called ‘A-list’ of heterogeneous candidates] has not trickled down, and the Tory grass roots remain overwhelmingly male and white.

“Nor has the change of image necessarily resulted in more minority votes. During the last general election, the Conservatives stayed stuck at roughly 20 percent of the ethnic-minority vote compared with Labour’s 64 percent.”

Few are impressed with Liz Truss’ economics

CNN, in a late July article titled “Two vie to replace Boris Johnson. Neither has ‘a true plan’ to fix its ailing economy,” spoke to three economists about the contenders’ plans, hearing “there is no easy fix in terms of slashing taxes to the deep problems we have here.”

But it is Truss whose economic plans have come in for the most scrutiny from the US media.

In another article – titled “The frontrunner to become the UK’s next leader has a risky economic plan” – CNN reported: “Tax cuts, Truss said, will help rein in runaway prices and boost growth — a claim that’s left many economists dumbfounded.”

Similarly the WSJ said that “Mr. Sunak, and many economists, say cutting tax would stoke higher inflation and force the Bank of England to rapidly raise interest rates, sending voters’ mortgage payments higher. Mr. Sunak also argues that it would threaten the Conservative Party’s reputation for cautious economic management by loading debt onto future generations.”

And a Bloomberg article syndicated to the Washington Post claimed that Truss’ “economic optimism… has a limited shelf life before it meets harsh reality”.

She found at least one defender at the Post – albeit also in an article syndicated from Bloomberg and originally written by the editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

In an article titled “Conservatives Shouldn’t Write Off ‘Trussonomics’ Just Yet,” Bloomberg and the Post said: ​​“A look at the [economic] fundamentals is well overdue. Both Sunak and Truss, who is hardly an economic illiterate and has served in five Cabinet posts, including chief secretary to the Treasury, need to tell us how they would turbocharge the sputtering UK engine.”

Liz Truss: candidate of change?

Some US media have found it notable that Truss had apparently pitched herself as the candidate of change despite her long government tenure.

In the first of the two above Bloomberg-Post articles, the author said: “Truss is successfully selling herself as offering a fresh start, despite having held cabinet roles for the past eight years. And she has wasted no time in projecting a new approach, albeit without much coherence, by promising to reverse some of Sunak’s thriftiness/stinginess (depending on your point of view).”

The Wall Street Journal, similarly, reported: “Ms. Truss spent the past decade as a stalwart government minister dutifully serving three consecutive Conservative Party leaders. But in recent weeks she has cast herself as an insurgent prepared to break with recent Conservative orthodoxy, particularly over the party’s traditionally cautious approach to public finances.”

CNN broke with that analysis, however, claiming Truss “is also largely thought of by Conservatives as the Johnson continuation candidate. Among her chief endorsers are some of Johnson’s most loyal allies, which could make dissociating herself from the current PM tricky”.

There is a spectre haunting the Conservative Party… Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson, often thought of in American media as a transatlantic analogue for Donald Trump, has also received some attention in coverage of the leadership contest.

The same day in late July The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal each published analyses arguing Johnson’s days in the limelight are not over.

Prompted by an ill-fated petition to allow Johnson to remain as Prime Minister, the Journal published “Boris Johnson Looms Large in the Race to Succeed Him,” reporting Johnson is “an increasingly awkward bystander in the race to succeed him, and is shaping up as a potential headache for his eventual successor…

“There is a long tail of Conservative voters who are fans and Mr. Johnson can mobilize this base to make his successor’s life difficult.”

The Post and Bloomberg, in “Boris Johnson Isn’t Going Away — and Tories Know It,” made the same point.

“Even the remote prospect that Johnson might return at some point will give him influence among Tories. If Johnson still has strong grassroots support in the party — even after all the scandals — he can be an asset or a threat to the next Conservative leader.”

The article also drew an explicit comparison to Trump: “Johnson wouldn’t be the only leader to haunt — or even dominate — his party after being kicked out of office. Benjamin Netanyahu, Silvio Berlusconi, Donald Trump are all politicians on the right who have lost office amid controversy and scandal, but either regained power or held their party hostage.”

Another spectre to think about: Margaret Thatcher

American media have also picked up on the postmortem influence exerted by Margaret Thatcher.

“Thatcher’s legacy looms large in race to replace Boris Johnson as British prime minister,” reported one Fox News headline in late July.

The channel’s website said: “The contest has primarily revolved around taxes and the economy in the post-COVID world, as well as immigration and navigating the waters of the post-Brexit era.”

(The conservative publisher also noted drily, following an early debate, that “Sunak interrupted Truss 22 times within the first 12 minutes of the debate, leading to criticism by Conservative party members, and showed perhaps why he is trailing to Truss.”)

The New York Times said Truss and Sunak “are both competing to wrap themselves in the mantle of Thatcher.

“Each is casting themselves as the true heir to her free-market, low-tax, deregulatory revolution at home, and her robust defense of Western democracy abroad… But experts on Thatcher say the candidates are cherry-picking the legacy of the woman known as the ‘Iron Lady,’ emphasizing the crowd-pleasing elements while glossing over the less appetizing ones, like some tax increases in 1981, during the depths of a recession, at a time when she was determined to curb runaway inflation.”

Brexit

Fox has not been the only outlet to pull at the Brexit thread.

The NYT noted the irony that Truss “campaigned for Britain to remain in the European Union during the 2016 Brexit referendum — a key dividing line for the many Conservative members who, like Mr. Sunak, voted to leave. But she has remade herself as a champion of Brexit causes, pursuing aggressive negotiations with the European Union over trade in Northern Ireland.”

CNN, to the contrary, expressed bafflement at a perceived lack of Brexit discussion in the race.

“Brexit, the most significant political event in modern British history, has been notably absent from the discourse surrounding the race to succeed Johnson,” the cable channel reported.

“Beyond vague references to taking advantage of Brexit’s benefits and the candidates trying to one-up one another’s Euroskeptic credentials, even the economic impacts are not being mentioned, despite the cost-of-living crisis that Britons are currently suffering.”

Intercontinental culture war

US outlets have expressed open distaste at certain aspects of the contest.

CNN claimed in one July headline that “Britain’s Conservative party leadership race is turning into a transphobic spectacle,” arguing that, “Besides the standard pledges of tax cuts or a slimmed down state, there has also been an enthusiastic promotion of anti-trans positions, potentially marking an intensification of the current government’s ‘war on woke.’”

Bloomberg and The Washington Post took this line of argument further in an article this week titled “Stumbling Sunak Shouldn’t Pander to the Tory Base.”

“The latest Ipsos Political Monitor reveals Sunak as the public’s favorite; he is clearly the candidate that the opposition Labour Party fear most. But then the approximately 175,000 rank-and-file members of the Tory Party are not known for their political wisdom or moral discernment.”

Arguing against Truss, the article charged: “High on audacious rhetoric and short on intellectual gravitas, Britain’s likely next prime minister comes across as an English-accented Sarah Palin….

“There is something both pathetic and tragic about such newfound zeal for culture wars. Sunak finds himself, a highly educated technocrat, in a party whose members increasingly prefer fantasists as leaders. Yet by catering to the lowest common denominator of British politics, he is making it more arduous for people like him to thrive, let alone rise to the top.”

For its part, The Wall Street Journal was keen to open a whole new front in Britain’s social and environmental debates.

In a late July editorial titled, “John Kerry’s British Election Meddling,” which bashed former US Secretary of State Kerry for urging the Tories to not backtrack on net-zero pledges, the Journal said that “Climate policy is an issue in the contest to succeed Boris Johnson as Tory leader and British Prime Minister after Mr. Johnson’s green ambitions wreaked so much economic damage. 

“Green levies and hostility to domestic oil-and-gas production contributed to a 54% rise in household energy costs in April, with another 40% increase expected in October…

“The great disappointment is that the final two candidates to replace Mr. Johnson ostensibly agree” with Kerry that pledges to get to net zero carbon can’t be put off, the Journal’s editorial board said.

Picture: Youtube screenshot

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