Rising prices, record-breaking NHS backlogs, the small matter of restoring dignity and decency to public office – the average Tory leadership candidate has plenty of pressing issues to choose from when setting out their stall to replace Boris Johnson. Running for party leader in the aftermath of a major pandemic and in the throes of a cost-of-living crisis, you would be forgiven for presuming that the country’s current state would act as an automatic filter for leadership hopefuls, focusing candidates only on serious, urgent matters.
Well, you would be wrong. It seems that, for some candidates, not even the 9.1 per cent rate of inflation is enough to weed out distractions. Popping up alongside the pledges to cut taxes and government department budgets is the deeply divisive debate over biologically determined sex vs socially constructed gender, also known as the trans rights culture war.
First to take up the mantle was Suella Braverman. The Attorney General announced her ambitions even before Johnson quit the leadership in an interview with ITV’s Robert Peston. Outlining her priorities for the country, the classic campaign fodder of “proper” tax cuts, shrinking the size of the state, and delivering on Brexit “opportunities”, was accompanied by a pledge to “get rid of all this woke rubbish and get back to a country where describing a man and a woman in terms of biology does not mean that you’re going to lose your job”.
Next up was that famously committed observer of the intricacies of feminist discourse, Rishi Sunak. Top on the priority list for the former chancellor, apparently, is women’s rights, including “recent trends to erase women via… clumsy, gender-neutral language”, an ally told the Daily Mail. “He believes we must be able to call a mother a mother and talk about breastfeeding, alongside trans-inclusive language where needed.” Meanwhile, poor old Penny Mordaunt spent Sunday (10 July) tweeting in defence of her past comments that a trans woman is a woman. “Some want to damage my reputation for whatever reason,” she tweeted. “They want to depict me as ‘woke’.”
The leadership candidates might kid themselves that they are signalling to voters they’re prioritising women. What they are actually showing is their willingness to employ a flaming culture war to get ahead, distracting attention from the arguably more immediate problems women in this country face. These include, in no particular order: the disproportionate impact of the pandemic-induced economic crisis on women; the fact that the number of women in the UK leaving the workforce to look after family has increased for the first time in decades; and continued violence against women and girls (though, to his credit, Sunak has included this latter issue in his pledges on women’s rights). There is also the small matter of the US rolling back one of the most significant feminist victories of the 20th century: the right to safe and legal abortion.
Wherever you stand on sex and gender, this most divisive of issues, we mustn’t let politicians stoke the fires of harmful online discourse. We mustn’t let our leaders diminish the prospect of constructive conversations on trans rights any further than they have been already. In fact, we would all do well to take a line out of another Tory leadership contender’s book. Asked by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, “Are trans men men and are trans women women?” the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, responded refreshingly: “Let people live their life.”
[See also: Tory leadership race: candidates are desperately short of new ideas]