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26 July

Do we think Liz Truss is silly because we’re sexist?

Boris Johnson was never ridiculed in quite the same way.

By Alona Ferber

We are entering the final laps of the Conservative leadership race, but neither candidate is filling voters with much confidence. Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor who would cut taxes and curb public spending if only he could, has the inconvenient baggage of his partygate fine to deal with. Liz “Just Call Me Thatcher” Truss, on the other hand, is seen as less Iron Lady, more, well, silly.

Online search results illustrate this nicely. Google “Rishi Sunak silly” and you will find a plethora of articles quoting him as saying it would be “silly” to help families with bills during the cost-of-living crisis. Google “Liz Truss silly” and you get articles glorifying her “finest moments” and alleging her lack of intelligence. A comparison of search trends regarding Sunak and Truss reveals our general attitudes towards them. Given that Truss happens to be a woman, it also begs the question: do we think Liz Truss is silly because we are sexist?

Truss is arguably one of those politicians who merits criticism edged with ridicule. She decided to pose atop a tank in Lithuania, a not-so-subtle nod to Margaret Thatcher’s 1986 tank shot. Her colourful private life has been widely reported on. And her impassioned speech in 2014 about cheese, British apples and pork markets is so silly it has to be seen to be believed. On policy, she doesn’t come across as much more serious, either. Having campaigned for Remain in 2016, she is now the full-on Brexit candidate and has pledged to ditch all EU laws by 2023; experts have warned that her £30bn tax-cutting economic plan will leave the UK with higher inflation and more debt. She will hardly go down in the history books as one of the UK’s best foreign secretaries. Dominic Cummings described her as “as close to properly crackers as anyone that I have met in parliament”.

However, the most popular search terms on Google for each candidate indicate that we evaluate Truss and Sunak on strikingly different, gendered lines. The top search terms for Rishi Sunak, according to the internet search analysts Semrush, are about his constituency, whether he has working-class friends, whether he is a Brexiteer, and how rich he is. With Truss, the most popular searches are about where she was born and went to school, whether she has a child, whether she is a Brexiteer, and her much publicised affair. “Liz Truss mistakes” and “Liz Truss married” are also on the list. Overall, there is much more search interest around Truss’s husband and children than the former chancellor’s.

Some of those differences reflect the news stories about each candidate, but what is noteworthy is how much more interest there is in Truss’s personal life than in Sunak’s. This is particularly notable given how often Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murty, was in the news this year. And it is typical of the way the media covers female politicians.

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Boris Johnson might be a better comparison. His Peppa Pig speech to the Confederation of British Industry in November 2021 was ridiculed as a rambling embarrassment. There are 1,600 searches a month for “Boris Johnson Peppa Pig World”, according to Semrush. Truss’s infamous cheese speech – totally worth watching, definitely silly – is the subject of far more monthly search traffic, even though it happened eight years ago.

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How can we be so sure sexism is part of this story? One data point demonstrates just how fundamentally different the public’s conceptions of female politicians are to those of male ones. There is a monthly average of 880 searches for “Liz Truss photos” and “Liz Truss legs”. “Boris Johnson photos” has an average of 760. Given the role that photos of Downing Street parties played in some of the soon-to-be-former Prime Minister’s controversies, and the fact he is PM, you might expect there to be more interest in images of him than Truss. Not many people are searching for Sunak’s legs.

Silliness is not a technical term. We can’t measure it; the way a politician might come across as ludicrous to us is unquantifiable. Truss probably is a little bit silly, but not much more than any of her male counterparts – and there is something uncomfortable about the extent to which she is lampooned. We know that men and women are held to different standards in public life, that women have to work harder to be taken seriously. It’s worth honestly asking yourself: would Truss be so mercilessly ridiculed if she were a man? I, for one, am not sure that she would.

[See also: Why Keir Starmer has borrowed the Tories’ “magic money tree” attack line]