That the UK looks set to have its third female prime minister might seem encouraging news for women. Yet, in the case of Liz Truss, I feel precisely the opposite. We all know that the stereotype of women as Instagram-obsessed intellectual lightweights lacking gravitas or charisma is outdated and unfair. So it’s immensely frustrating to watch Truss play into so many of these sexist tropes, making people suspect they might carry some weight.
For years women have been told to forget their impostor syndrome – the tendency to not be confident in a job because they feel unqualified or as if they don’t belong. Unfortunately, Truss is someone who could actually do with more impostor syndrome; she proves why bravado should always be backed up with proficiency. As foreign secretary she reduced the UK to a laughing stock on numerous occasions, for example confusing the Black Sea with the Baltic Sea, or telling the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov that “the UK will never recognise Russian sovereignty” over Voronezh and Rostov – regions of Russia that she wrongly assumed were in Ukraine. The deals she signed as trade secretary, touted as historic, in fact replicated the trade agreements Britain enjoyed in the EU – to the extent that her department was nicknamed “the Department for Cut and Paste”.
Indeed, it is disheartening to note that one of the words repeatedly used by politicians and voters alike when it comes to Truss is “lightweight”. (Over the past month she has been described this way in the Times, Spectator, Independent, Guardian and the Daily Mail.) Many women have been unfairly labelled with this description, but sadly it fits with much of Truss’s policymaking. Since the start of her leadership campaign, she has proposed £30bn in tax cuts with little suggestion as to how they will be funded beyond vague promises of efficiency and a relaxed approach to borrowing. Other words that come to mind are “unpredictable” and “emotional”, as evidenced by her tendency to rush out brash announcements, and U-turns over both cost-of-living “handouts” and public sector pay cuts.
And then there’s Truss’s Instagram account – from which my friend sends screenshots to his boyfriend whenever he needs a laugh. Men on dating apps often complain how “girls these days are all about Instagram filters rather than substance”, but now our potential new female prime minister is set to offer them some validation. I’m all for branding, but does Truss’s need to be so blatant? Considering her record of achievement hasn’t exactly been robust, the endless stream of promotional images feels excessive: portraits of her, flag-flanked, signing every trade deal, posing to invoke Margaret Thatcher with a fur hat in Moscow, and sitting atop tanks (and zip wires). Unlike previous foreign secretaries, she is accompanied by a photographer or videographer abroad; as justice secretary she reportedly complained that her team had not arranged a prison visit for a camera crew to follow her on.
Detractors will say much of the criticism of Truss is just barely disguised sexism – it’s not as if her predecessor displayed a talent for statesmanship. But should we set the bar as low as Boris Johnson? I want to support Liz Truss. She is more of an outsider than Rishi Sunak, she is bold – and of course, she is a woman. But for all Truss has sold herself as a second Thatcher, the flaccidity of her beliefs and her flip-flopping propensity to tell voters what she thinks they want to hear demonstrates she is nothing like the last truly powerful woman who occupied No 10.