Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Comment
18 April 2024

Liz Truss, Angela Rayner and the perils of partisanship

Too often, criticisms are dismissed because of who is making them rather than because they are wrong.

By David Gauke

Politics is a rough game. In few other careers are you subjected to such a level of scrutiny. Your opponents are anxious to expose a mistake; journalists will relish every stumble; social media will be ready to pile in.

To survive at the highest levels, politicians need a thick skin. But an imperviousness to criticism is not a natural state of affairs. What is needed are coping mechanisms to help dismiss criticisms that might otherwise be wounding. The easiest, most straightforward coping mechanism is to dismiss the motives or understanding of your critics.

This is often an essentially tribal argument – your critics are wrong, and their criticisms are invalid because they are part of the other tribe. This approach also has the advantage that it will give you allies. Other members of your tribe will agree with you. You are not alone and exposed but supported by friends and colleagues.

If one wants to see an example of this, read Ten Days to Save the West, Liz Truss’s book on her brief time as prime minister. It turns out that she was not totally hopeless and did not make a series of calamitous errors. Instead, she was bravely taking on a failing left-wing establishment. Everything that went wrong was, in fact, their fault. The Bank of England, the Office for Budget Responsibility, the civil service, spineless Tory MPs, the media, and so on; they were all part of the problem. And when such establishment figures criticise her, well of course they do. They are wrong about everything else, and they are wrong about me, she tells herself. Admittedly, the Truss tribe is a small one and the tribe of her critics rather large, but she has her small band of supporters. That must be of some comfort.

The example of Truss also reveals a very clear problem with this approach. It gets in the way of clear thinking. Rather than examine each of the criticisms directed at her on their merits, Truss and her supporters focus on the attitudes and opinions of her critics. She was a disruptor, they favour the status quo; she was brave, they are cowardly; she was filled with urgency, they are complacent. The events of autumn 2022 are twisted so that she is the victim of others’ incompetence.  

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Truss is not unique. Most politicians most of the time will be dismissing criticisms of themselves and their allies by thinking to themselves that their critics are mad or bad or ignorant. Political life would become impossibly bruising without this mechanism. Sometimes, as with Truss, this can lead people astray. And I just wonder if that is happening in the case of Angela Rayner.

I can already hear the protests at such a comparison. How dare you compare the woman who crashed the economy and made the UK an international laughing stock with someone who is a victim of a vicious Tory smear campaign over her taxes? I take the point but please hear me out.

The point about Rayner is not really whether she paid capital gains tax on the sale of her property. As the tax expert Dan Neidle pointed out in his excellent summary of the situation, this is a relatively complex area of law, and it is all too easy for an unadvised taxpayer acting in good faith to get it wrong. The potential sums involved are also relatively small.

The issue is that the explanation Rayner initially gave for why capital gains tax was not payable – the house she owned was her principal residence, rather than her husband’s house – appears to be wrong. Wrong according to the evidence of a neighbour (as far as we can tell, she lived at her husband’s separate property at the time), and wrong in law (a married couple can only have one principal residence for capital gains tax purposes, not one for each spouse).

Rayner says that she has received expert tax advice and knows that there is no tax owed. As Neidle sets out, there are various explanations as to why no capital gains tax needed to be paid. One or more of those explanations may apply but it is not obvious which and Rayner, up until now, has not told us.

What we have heard instead is plenty about Tory dirty tricks, the partisanship of the Mail, Michael Ashcroft’s use of non-dom status (the story about Rayner’s house first appeared in a book Ashcroft wrote about Labour’s deputy leader), comparisons with the “beergate” inquiry, and Rayner’s working-class background.

All of that has been enough to get most of the Labour movement on Rayner’s side. At a time when the party is riding high in the polls, it is also probably enough to keep most of the public on-side as well, which may well be willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and view the whole story as rich Tories bullying a Labour politician from an under-privileged background.

It is quite possible that the story will peter out. The Greater Manchester Police investigation into various related matters may amount to nothing. As Neidle writes, it would be “plain daft” for HMRC to bring a prosecution in these circumstances. If Rayner holds the line, the story may go away.

But it has not gone away yet. Rayner’s denials were, at best, careless. At worst, they have raised questions about her honesty, which is a much more serious matter than the original tax allegation.

A Trussian mindset that treats all criticisms and allegations as merely nonsense from wrong-headed opponents is all very well but sometimes those criticisms and allegations should at least be taken seriously. Labour must be hoping that the Rayner affair is not one of those occasions.

[See also: Andrew Marr: the Angela Rayner tax row spells real danger for Labour]

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action

Topics in this article : ,