Liz Truss, for all her pledges of hefty tax cuts and a dramatic change in direction from her predecessor, is ultimately running as Boris Johnson’s continuity candidate in the Conservative leadership contest. However, given her policies are so radically different from his (presuming she intends to follow through on any of them once Tory members likely install her in No 10, of course), she is having to perform said continuity through style rather than substance.
One front on which Truss has succeeded spectacularly is in her handling of the media. In a hustings organised by the Rupert Murdoch-owned TalkTV, hosted by Tom Newton Dunn, Truss was asked who was responsible for the downfall of Boris Johnson. As she paused to consider her answer, a few people in the audience shouted “the media”. In response, Truss remarked: “It sounds like you are being blamed, Tom? Who am I to disagree with this excellent audience?”
Let us be brutally honest: being mean to the media will not cost Truss a single vote, either in this leadership contest or during a future general election. But she has clearly decided a war on the media suits her interests and serves her purposes, even if it’s detached from reality. Truss had earlier accused Newton Dunn – an alumnus of Marlborough College and a former political editor of the Sun – of being “left wing” for asking her if she would do more to help with energy prices. Perhaps knowing she had jabbed at him a little persistently, and presumably not knowing the mics were still live, Truss embraced Newton Dunn at the end of the event and told him, “I’m sorry I was mean about the media” – to which he retorted “it’s cheap and you know it”.
Truss knows Boris Johnson was brought down by Boris Johnson, with some help from his terrible No 10 operation and the utter inability of both to change. This, in turn, led Conservative ministers, rather than the media, to bring him down. But she also knows that blaming the media gets her out of a question she would rather not answer, and so she was happy to take the easier road.
Truss has always courted the media and been friendly to favoured journalists – she has certainly never been publicity-shy. But her willingness to persistently scapegoat the media when it suits is concerning. Last week, Truss’s campaign made its biggest unforced error to date, when it released a statement promising to introduce regional pay boards to control public sector pay in line with regional averages – a move that could dramatically cut pay for teachers, nurses and doctors in the north of England.
The press release promised the move would save up to £8.8bn – meaning it could only be about making savings on future pay. Once it caused a huge, inevitable backlash across the Red Wall, Truss promptly U-turned – while simultaneously claiming her policy had been distorted by the media. Post-truth politics relies on determined lies: a politician willing to stick to a false statement even when a written release from their own campaigns shows it is a lie. But while post-truth politics got Johnson into No 10, it is also what forced him out again – a political failure with his legacy left undone.
Truss seems set to continue his model, despite press support most politicians – and certainly anyone in Labour – could never dream of (the front page of the Daily Express on 10 August read “In Liz we trust”), kicking the media even as they sing her praises. However, there’s no reason to think it will end any better for her than it did for Johnson – they loved him once, too.